Dust reduction measures at the Southern Fleurieu Health Service will not solve safety concerns for ambulance helicopters, according to Finniss MP David Basham.

Key points:

  • David Basham has questioned why some gravel areas near Victor Harbor hospital’s helipad have not been sealed
  • A MedSTAR crew was stranded at a mid-north airfield last December due to dust and visibility issues
  • SA Health says that helipad is now in full-time use

South Australian Ambulance Service’s (SAAS) MedSTAR emergency medical retrieval helicopters have been landing at Goolwa Airport and nearby ovals since a near miss with a pedestrian at Victor Harbor hospital in August.

Parking was reconfigured in the gravel areas around the helipad and part of the area was sealed to reduce the amount of dust kicked up during landings and take-offs.

A trial landing was conducted at the hospital’s helipad on Friday, but Mr Basham said the ground was damp from overnight rain and questioned why all the gravel areas around the helipad had not been sealed.

“The dust will still be a problem,” he said.

“They have only sealed what was the smaller car park to the side of the helipad and not the larger one, which is still in use.”

Mr Basham provided the ABC with a video taken in January that showed the level of dust raised from the gravel car park when a helicopter took off.

David Basham says more needs to be done to address the dust problem.(ABC South East SA: Caroline Horn)

Clare Hospital delays

The ABC has been told that safety concerns around dust levels had restricted MedSTAR landings at another regional hospital.

Use of the helipad at Clare Hospital in the state’s mid-north was limited between August 2022 and July 2023, which contributed to at least one near-miss clinical incident.

On December 7 last year a MedSTAR crew was stranded at the Stanley Flat Airport, six kilometres from the hospital, after being sent to retrieve a patient suspected of suffering a stroke.

At the time the helipad at Clare Hospital could not be used at night or in low light and the helicopter had to land at the airport.

When the helicopter arrived at 1:30am the volunteer ambulance crew on duty had been called to another emergency and was not available to transport the MedSTAR crew and their equipment to the hospital.

The MedSTAR crew did not reach the Clare Hospital until 2:30am.

A spokesperson for Health Minister Chris Picton referred questions about the incident to SA Health.

High-risk landings

An SA Health spokesperson said a risk assessment had found that dust from an unsealed road near the hospital made landing dangerous in low-visibility conditions.

“This is no longer a concern as works to seal the road were completed in July, enabling the SAAS MedSTAR helicopter to safely use the helipad 24/7, subject to weather conditions,” the spokesperson said.

An SAAS spokesperson said “every attempt was made to facilitate timely transfers” when regional hospitals were forced to use alternative helicopter landing sites and local ambulance staff were required for transportation.

“Inevitably in this complex space, aligning aircraft and ambulance availability can be challenging, with SAAS always prioritising life-threatening emergencies,” the spokesperson said.

“In this case, there was a 35-minute wait between the helicopter landing and an ambulance arriving.

“During this time, the patient remained safe in hospital and under the care of doctors.”

Penny Pratt says the safety of patients and health service personnel is paramount.(Supplied: Penny Pratt)

Frome MP and Opposition spokesperson for regional health services Penny Pratt said she was aware that improvements had been made at the Clare Hospital helipad since last year.

But she said the state government needed to ensure helipads did not become run down because the consequences could be grave for patients.

“No-one wants their loved one waiting,” Ms Pratt said.

“Our ambulance crews are amazing and MedSTAR is essential.”