We’ve always been fascinated by the sight of the bright red London Air Ambulance helicopter zooming around the skies above the capital, so we jumped at the chance to visit the charity’s headquarters at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel.
Three important things about London's Air Ambulance
We’re going to begin by telling you three important things we discovered about London’s Air Ambulance (LAA). First things first, you don’t call the helicopter a chopper. Londonist’s filmmaker Geoff Marshall found that out when he flew in from RAF Northolt at 7am on Helimed two-seven (you call it an aircraft). The second most important thing is that LAA is funded mainly by charitable donations. It’s not an offshoot of the London Ambulance Service, it’s not funded by the NHS, it’s here because of corporate sponsorship and the donations of Londoners themselves. The third is that the objective of the air ambulance is not to transport patients to hospital quicker, it’s to get doctors and paramedics to the patients quicker.
What happens when the 999 call is made?
The LAA team has a paramedic in the London Ambulance Service control room who decides if the call for an ambulance needs the helicopter. When we arrived at The Royal London, the team were on their way back from one call but diverted to another which involved fatalities. It’s more than a little sobering to stand by the helipad awaiting the helicopter’s return as BBC news reports on its attendance at the scene across the city.
In their role to get medical assistance to the scene as quickly as possible, the air ambulance crew consists of two pilots, a paramedic and a doctor with an enormous amount of kit. The pilots aim to land not more than about 200m from the incident which means the doctors and paramedics might find themselves running up a hill (as they did the day we visited) carrying their Thomas packs.
Once on the ground, the paramedic and doctor dash over to the patient and begin medical treatment, stat. Patient stabbed in the chest? The team can perform open heart surgery by the side of the road. Cyclist been crushed by a lorry? LAA staff can use a pioneering technique called Resuscitative Endovascular Balloon Occlusion of the Aorta (REBOA) which keeps blood above the pelvis circulating while the patient is rushed to hospital. London’s Air Ambulance was the first in the world to carry out this procedure.
Where the patient goes next
Only a third of patients treated at the scene end up being taken to hospital in the helicopter. The Royal London Hospital is part of a London Trauma Network, and there are three other major trauma centres patients in London can be taken to, depending on location of the incident.
We were told that it’s common for former patients to come back and visit. One former patient even gave up her gap year to volunteer for LAA.
After the call
After every shout there’s a debrief, where the team go over what happened, what they did and what (if anything) they could learn from it. There's also a daily brief when they also go over times for sunset and sunrise, road closures and anything else which could affect what they do.
The crew also have to check and restock the kit they take out with them and spend time making sure everything is present and working.
A stint with London's Air Ambulance is a coveted thing around the globe. It's incredibly competitive to get in — one paramedic told us that they receive on average 120 applications when the posts come up. The job can be pretty harrowing as the team is only called to the most serious incidents. The doctors are seconded to the service for six months and paramedics are seconded for nine months. Both have to complete a rigorous sign-off period. London's Air Ambulance has such a great reputation that doctors apply from all over the world; the doctor-in-training at the moment came from Australia just to work with the charity. The variety of experience and knowledge they gain in just six months is enormous and all of that is transferred to other areas once their posting is over.
At the moment, the pilots can only be operational for 12 hours at a time, and the air ambulance doesn't fly 24 hours a day. At the end of the day, the helicopter is flown back to RAF Northolt and a car response service takes over.
Takeoff and landing
We flew in from Northolt at 1,000ft, but the helicopter is cleared to fly up to 1,200ft and it has airspace priority if it's on an emergency call. It took just nine minutes to get from Northolt to Whitechapel and we got a cracking view of London, including the roof of Londonist Towers.
Fire crew are required to be at every takeoff and landing on the helipad. London's Air Ambulance has two fire crew stationed at the hospital daily. They've had specialist training and are responsible for the safety of the staff on the helipad, help offload any patients who have had to be transported, and equipment checks.
If, like us, you were wondering what conditions the helicopter can fly in, the answer is nearly all of them. On the day we visited, weather conditions were dull and misty, but that hadn't stopped the team going out. London's skyline itself provides some challenges for flying a helicopter — it's not just the buildings, but the hundreds of cranes which they have to keep an eye out for too.
Keeping London's Air Ambulance flying
Chancellor George Osborne handed the charity £1m in the 2014 budget to buy a second helicopter, but that only covers the cost of one year’s funding of the enhanced service. The average cost of a mission (helicopter and car) is £1,577.
And London's Air Ambulance is busy. Figures released in September showed that by the end of August this year, they'd treated 1,144 patients, including 354 from road traffic accidents (133 pedestrians, 78 motorcyclists and 45 cyclists), 307 falls from high places and 282 stabbings and shootings.
The charity celebrated 25 years in operation in January 2014, and raises funds via a series of events. In June, those with a head for heights had the opportunity to abseil from LAA's 17th floor helipad, and their Christmas carol concert on 10 December featured in our round-up of the capital's best. You can also make a one-off or monthly donation to support the charity.
Lead paramedic Graham Chalk told us that having a second helicopter means they could reach an extra 400 people per year and save more lives. We'd like to take a moment to remind you what a tremendously difficult job London's Air Ambulance staff do and how valuable their expertise is. Next time you see the red helicopter flying over the city, remember it's Londoners who help keep it in the air.
Photos by BethPH in the Londonist Flickr pool.