WINCHING operations out of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter base in Tamworth will be reinstated with new aircraft coming to the region by mid-2017.
The long-awaited news came yesterday after a two-and-a-half-year campaign which included a widespread public backlash over the original decision to stop regional winching back in July 2013, and a protest petition that attracted over 10,000 signatures and high-level civic and regional support.
Local MP Kevin Anderson announced the win yesterday alongside Westpac chopper boss Richard Jones in Tamworth, but admitted it would not physically be back in action until about May next year.
Health Minister Jillian Skinner had called for a standardisation of the service, which Mr Anderson said was a catalyst for the reinstatement of winching.
“Tamworth is expected to have the new AW139 (helicopter) on the ground in the early part of the second half of next year.
“As soon as that aircraft arrives and replaces the current BK117, staff will already be trained and once it starts service on that day the winching will resume,” he said.
Standardised service and the rollout of a new helicopter fleet across the Tamworth, Lismore and Newcastle bases were cited as a catalyst for the operation being returned.
Winching operations from the Tamworth base were ceased in 2013 with safety concerns flagged as the major factor.
Mr Anderson said, with the introduction of new helicopters, “it makes commonsense and good sense ... to be able to have winching available as a rescue option for paramedics in Tamworth”.
Acting mayor Russell Webb applauded the efforts of the wider community in continually pressing for the winch to be reinstated.
“I have no doubt those in government have seen the reaction of the community and it’s been very strong,” he said.
“The community has been so strong on it and they have had wonderful support from all facets of media in their campaign, and that has certainly helped the decision being made to reinstate the winch.”
The acting mayor said the reinstatement would be vindication for community fundraisers and they could be assured the money they raised “will not be wasted on tasking two helicopters to an event at huge, extra cost”.
Mr Anderson said there were six instances of service duplication where a second chopper was required to attend an incident due to the Tamworth chopper’s inability to winch.
And Westpac Rescue Helicopter general manager Richard Jones said the biggest cost of duplicated services was the chopper’s reputation.
“It cost the service’s reputation probably more than anything, and cost the people of the Lower Hunter. If the Newcastle helicopter has to travel up this way, that means there’s no aircraft there, so someone in the state is missing out,” he said.
Mr Jones said the service was thrilled with the news.
“I think it’s a huge win for our communities and something that they’ve fought for, and I applaud the fact that communities have continued to fight for this,” he said.