Kent Air Ambulance: 25 years on
PUBLISHED: 16:00 01 February 2015 | UPDATED: 16:00 01 February 2015
Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance is celebrating its Silver Anniversary in 2015. Kent Life looks back over 25 years of saving lives and at the celebrations planned for this milestone year
What if your job not only involved never knowing what was going to happen literally in the next minute, but also invested in you the power to make a difference between life and death?
That is the not inconsiderable remit of those who work within The Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance service, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Still the only air ambulance operator in the UK to fly 24 hours a day, the service has led the field since it was established by founder Kate Chivers in 1990, most recently hitting the headlines when in 2013 it started operating a Helicopter Emergency Medical Service 24 hours a day; night flying had finally arrived.
“2015 is not only a milestone in our history but it gives us a chance to look back on how we have also been able to make a positive impact on the lives of many thousands of people over the years,” says Tony Monteuuis, a former High Sheriff of Kent, who has held the post of chairman of trustees for the past decade.
There are eight trustees and three of these on the main board also chair a county board in each of the three counties: Kent, Surrey and Sussex.
Their chief executive, Adrian Bell, who was recovering from a hip operation at the time of this interview, is “just fantastic – he’s the new generations of ceos,” says Tony. He is enthusiastic in his praise for the boss, a former Naval Commander of the British Forces Gibraltar who joined the Trust in September 2010.
“Our founder was Kate Chivers and is in our DNA,” adds Tony. “God bless her for her determination to get this service quite literally off the ground.
“She did all the spadework and thank goodness now for our ceo Adrian today carrying on the brilliant work.”
Tony and I are speaking at the Marden headquarters of Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance. It is quite extraordinary to realise that those 25 years have seen more than 25,000 missions, the pioneering introduction of doctors on board in 2005, expanding the service with a second helicopter to help cover Kent, Surrey and Sussex, being the first to carry blood on board to enable transfusions at the scene and, most recently, becoming the first Air Ambulance to fly routinely at night; in the first year of its night operations crews have attended more than 430 patients as well as about 1,400 patients by day.
“We used to fly only in daylight hours, which is very challenging in the winter, as our day was really limited by the light.
“With the ability to fly 24 hours now it works so well because the Air Ambulance is there if someone needs it, when they need it. It’s been great to be able to do it, but a great challenge too for the whole team.
“You have to have people who are prepared to work at night, and shifting any business to 24-hour operation does all sorts of things to your business, including the wage bill, because it’s anti-social working hours and you always have to have cover for your night operations; if somebody on the team is ill, you’ve still got to fly the Air Ambulance,” says Tony.
And as director of communications, Jill Playle, points out: “People’s behaviour is very different at night from the day. For example, during the day people play sports like rugby and work in industrial settings such as factories, but what we are finding at night is more traumas, serious assaults, stabbings and even a shooting, accidents or incidents that happen as the result of drink or drugs – although interestingly, we’re still doing roughly the same numbers of road traffic accidents by day as by night.”
The charity received a very welcome recent boost when Chancellor George Osborne announced in his autumn statement that he was awarding a “significant” grant to the Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance. The seven-figure sum will go towards the charity’s capital investment programmes based on a new helicopter and future basing needs.
Chief executive, Adrian Bell, said at the time: “The Chancellor’s statement, in which he granted the Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance Trust £1.5m, is a very clear and ringing endorsement of the critical service this charity provides to its patients.
“As support to our capital-investment programme, it is eloquent recognition of the need to ensure the long-term resilience and sustainability of this vital emergency service, funded as it is through charitable donation rather than NHS finances.”
In an additional move, the Chancellor also exempted all Air Ambulance charity expenditure from VAT. In Kent, Surrey & Sussex’s case this will release about £100,000 per year directly to frontline services rather than the Exchequer and equates to more than 30 life-saving missions of the 1,800 the charity undertakes annually.
As Adrian points out: “We still have to raise more than £6m annually to provide this life-saving service but I hope our many supporters will, like me, rejoice in the fact that yet more of their generous and so gratefully received donations will support this vital cause so directly.”
Tony agrees: “Even today people think we are part of the NHS and forget we are a charity that saves lives, not part of the NHS at all, although we of course work closely with them – but unlike them, we don’t have to respond to any targets.
“We always put the patient’s needs first – for example, the very first day we carried blood back in February 2012, somebody’s life was saved. Now we are exploring whether we can carry plasma as well, which is very exciting.
“We are a very forward-looking charity and our medical team focuses hard on what we are doing, how well we are doing it and how we can do it better?”
And Tony has no hesitation in naming the highlight of his term in office. “To be the pioneers here in Kent of night flying has been my absolute highlight in the past decade, the magnificent way the people in this organisation have risen to the challenge and keep coming up with new ways of setting themselves further limits, achieving them and then setting more.”
He adds: “We haven’t ever had to turn down a well thought-out proposal under my chairmanship; we don’t play God, but we have to make very critical decisions about what will benefit the greatest number of people.
“It is a great privilege to be a chairman of an organisation so brilliantly fulfilling in what is does for the local community. We want to develop the service so we can help more people and make an even bigger difference – but we still need to keep the funds coming in on a day-to-day basis.” n