x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Rise in search-and-rescue calls

A rise in the number of helicopter search-and-rescue missions this year has stretched the resources of the Air Force and police.

The demand for the services of helicopters like this one on patrol in the skies over Dubai is growing.
The demand for the services of helicopters like this one on patrol in the skies over Dubai is growing.

A rise in the number of helicopter search-and-rescue missions this year has stretched the resources of the Air Force and police, according to the commander of the Air Force Medical Centre. The number of calls has already exceeded the 2007 total, leading to a call from Major Nasser al Nuaimi for more collaboration between the Air Force, police and health services, particularly in the use of helicopters.

Helicopters increasingly are being used to provide emergency medical care in different terrain and diverse locations. Apart from search-and-rescue operations, they are used for emergency hospital transfers and humanitarian missions. Major Nuaimi outlined the challenges facing the rescue services. "The first is to ensure that we collaborate fully with each other to avoid duplication of effort and resources," he said.

He also cited a lack of trained paramedics. "They are the lifesavers but are almost impossible to recruit." Major Nuaimi spoke at the Aero-Med conference at the Dubai Helishow at the Airport Expo. The event brings together experts from across the world to share new technologies and discuss solutions to the issues faced in providing medical care by air. Technological advances are important for the rescue services to save more lives, said Lt Mohammad Ali of the Abu Dhabi Police Air Wing.

"We have recently replaced our fleet of helicopters. Greater speed will enable us to arrive at the scene earlier and therefore have a greater chance of saving lives in critical cases. Increased fuel capacity will enable us to cover greater distances and therefore carry out rescues in remote areas," he said. This year the air wing has rescued 220 people, compared with 152 in 2007. All helicopters carry artificial breathing and suction equipment, defibrillators and specialist tools to extract people trapped in vehicles or in the wild.

While the number of search-and-rescue missions rose, the air ambulances were being asked to take on an increasing number of roles, Lt Ali said. "Many of our calls come from abroad. We regularly fly to Oman and Yemen as these are popular destinations and people often get into trouble during the journey. Recently we have flown to Pakistan to provide humanitarian aid and we are also asked to provide air security to visiting dignitaries. All these factors mean that we cannot focus solely on search and rescue."

One of the reasons the air ambulance service is under so much pressure is the policy of developing specialised health facilities in the country. The Centre of Excellence policy of providing specialist care in particular hospitals means helicopters are needed to transport patients from one site to another for emergency operations. Patients have to be flown because the roads are clogged with traffic.

Major Nuaimi said there was always a risk of catastrophe. "We have been lucky that we have not had to deal with a large-scale incident. However, it is imperative that we increase levels of collaboration between all the services to ensure that we could deal with a catastrophe if it came. This is why we are looking to work with the international air medicine community. "There have been some wonderful examples of the use of helicopters in disaster management and we need to adopt those lessons and be as prepared as we can be."

He explained some of the cultural specifics that make air rescue in the UAE particularly difficult. "We find that women will refuse to be treated by a male paramedic. Also, you can imagine that space is limited in a helicopter, so if a patient's entire family insists on accompanying them it creates difficulties. "Although we can learn from international experience we have to provide a tailored service, to meet our own specific needs."

tbrooks@thenational.ae