3,000 airlifts in 8 years: The understated impact of Air Corps 112 on rural Ireland

The Emergency Aeromedical Service, better known by its call sign Air Corps 112, has played a key role in rapid emergency responses since its inception in 2012 – with a hefty portion of these missions taking place among the rural and farming communities of Ireland.

The service, which is a joint project between the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the Defence Forces, recently airlifted its 3,000th patient – a Co. Clare farmer whose tractor overturned last month.

However, this recent mission wasn’t out of the ordinary for Air Corps 112.

Farming incidents

“You’d be surprised at how many farming accidents we’ve been called to,” Commandant Stephen Byrne of the Air Corps told AgriLand.

“I’m from a rural background myself – my dad is a part-time farmer – so I would have grown up seeing the usual farm machinery, cows and the usual. But I was surprised at just how many [farming] incidents happen on a regular basis.

“We get tasked to an awful lot of equestrian accidents. Also, the typical rural farmer during the winter getting knocked or kicked by a cow indoors in a shed, or when cattle are being let out in the spring.

You’re dealing more with the likes of a bull that’s after attacking a farmer. That happens on a very regular basis. Then, farm machinery – it’s frightening how often that that can happen, most recently during the lockdown.

With crews split into pods during the spring of 2020, Commandant Byrne said:

“Our pod alone went to two separate incidents involving near-amputations with PTO shafts. You read about these things; you hear these things that may have happened – but unfortunately they’re still more regular than you would like to imagine.

“We go to a lot of farming accidents. They’re obviously the more acute incidents – traumatic, and that’s why we’re called to them.

“Then there would be less acute farming accidents, but because they’re so rural and so difficult for help to get there, we’d be sent.”

A key aspect of the service is the obvious benefit of speed – but this has different uses, as Commandant Byrne explained: “Our first mission is to get our pre-hospital care, get our advanced paramedics to the scene.

Then, should the patient require it and require helicopter intervention, obviously we have the speed of the helicopter; not to get the patient to the closest hospital – but to get the patient to the most appropriate hospital.

This, the officer explained, is a critical difference, bringing a patient from a relatively remote rural location like Belmullet, Co. Mayo, not to the closest hospital, which would be in Castlebar, but rather the likes of Galway University Hospital, or Beaumont Hospital in the event of a bad head injury.

“Recently enough we were tasked to an accident in north Co. Monaghan. There was no ambulance on-scene for about 25 minutes and we could be there in about 15. We were actually airborne on the way home from another job at the time.

It was about 12 minutes from where we were, just north of Roscommon, so we were able to go to Monaghan. The farmer was kicked by a cow out in the field and he was lying out in the field in wet conditions.

“But, once our paramedic got there, he was deemed that he was able to give him pain relief and make him more stable, so he didn’t go via helicopter; he was able to go by ambulance to the closest hospital.

“These accidents are happening on a regular basis. Farm accidents would be a huge proportion of what we do.”

The team

Air Corps 112, which is based in Custume Barracks, in the central location of Athlone town, is run by two state agencies. The National Ambulance Service provides command and control – it tasks the helicopter and provides an advanced paramedic on board.

Meanwhile, the Irish Air Corps provides the asset, which is the Leonardo AW139 helicopter. Also, it provides the crew, the facilities and technicians.

The project operates with a six-person crew: two pilots; a National Ambulance Service advanced paramedic; an Irish Air Corps emergency medical technician; and two technicians at base.

The Irish Air Corps EMT is also the crewman, Commandant Byrne explained, adding: “He’s the guy who’s very visual; he’s the guy who’s hanging out the door, clearing our tail, looking for wires, and he’s also charged with patient security in the rear.”

Operations

With 3,000 patients airlifted in eight years, this works out at 375 patients a year – more than one a day.

While the crew can travel with night-vision goggles at night, the National Ambulance Service only tasks the team to fly with patients on-board during daylight hours only.

Commenting on this, the commandant said: “Even when the partners set it up initially, they were surprised at how busy the job tended to be.

“The Irish Air Corps had done search and rescue for up to 40 years, and we had done inter-hospital transfers, which would be the transfers of patients from remote hospitals back to specialist hospitals.

Of the inter-hospital transfers we were doing, we lifted 2,500 patients in just under 40 years – and then suddenly, when the EAS was set up, they lifted 3,000 patients in eight years.

“That just gives the context – it became incredibly busy. We’ve crews down here 365 days a year, seven days a week. They’re 12-hour days. It’s a daylight service only – that’s an important aspect to remember.”