Bereaved family welcomes government support for air ambulance

September 7, 2015

A Dromintee family who raised £65,000 for a failed emergency air ambulance charity has welcomed the recent announcement by Health Minister Simon Hamilton that the government is committed to establishing the service in Northern Ireland.

On Thursday the Minister announced his support for the setting up of a Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) as part of plans to transform major trauma services.

The news has been welcomed by Peter Fearon whose son Gerald was killed in a car accident nine years ago.  Following Gerald’s tragic passing in October 2006, Peter, his wife Helen and their family and friends set about fundraising for an air ambulance service here, believing it would be a fitting tribute to his memory.

The Trojan efforts of the Gerald Fearon Memorial Fund committee raised a total of £65,000, which was donated to the Ireland Air Ambulance (IAA) charitable company. However, it later emerged that this money, together with other public donations amounting to almost £1million, had disappeared amid allegations of mismanagement of funds.

The revelation was devastating for the Fearon family and their friends who had put so much effort into raising such a significant sum.  But, in a bid to salvage the vision of an air ambulance service, Peter and his fellow committee member, Aidan Rice, joined a newly formed board within the IAA.  Their efforts, however, were futile as, in the months following the allegations, a continued lack of transparency and the withdrawal of support from key stakeholders signalled the death knell for the charity and, ultimately, the dream.

The issue of an emergency air ambulance service came to public prominence again earlier this year when Tandragee doctor John Hinds died in a motorcycle accident.  Dr. Hinds had a long association of providing medical cover at motorcycle road racing events and had been a strong advocate for the need of an emergency air ambulance service here.  Following his death, a renewed campaign began with tens of thousands supporting an online petition, which is scheduled to be handed into Stormont tomorrow (Tuesday).

Now, with the Health Minister’s endorsement, the vision is nearing a reality and Peter Fearon has welcomed the move.

“We would love to see [an air ambulance service] happen.  At the time when Gerald was killed we thought it was a brilliant idea.  We still do.  It was just unfortunate where our money went.  It was the hard work all our committee did, they put massive work into it.  We felt so bad about it all, the way it happened.  We took people’s money and it just disappeared.  I felt very bad, I still feel very bad, 65 grand just disappeared,” he said.

“There was a lot of publicity around what happened to us and it brought the issue to public attention and how much the service is needed in Northern Ireland.  But for it to have a future, it would have to be strictly monitored.  We thought it was all bone fide and all above board at the time and we donated to it in good faith. It was only after the money was gone, when myself and Aidan joined another committee to try and save it, that we found [the IAA] were little more than cowboys.  They squandered the money, they did shopping with it. It was a total joke.”

Peter says the concept of HEMS will have a much better chance of success with government backing, a key factor, he says, was severely lacking previously.

“The big thing now is it has government backing.  Even with the original team gone, it was still a dead duck because the government wouldn’t give the backing.  Now that it is, that is a major step forward,” he said.

The setting up of an air ambulance service would incur estimated expenses of £2.38m for initial infrastructure and £1.8m annual recurrent operating costs.

Mr Fearon says the success of the HEMS will depend on public and charitable donations but has reservations of becoming involved again on a personal level.

“If the circumstances were right maybe I might get involved, but the circumstances would have to be right.  There would want to be a very sound structure in place.  It wasn’t monitored at all previously.”

Aidan Rice believes the their vision will now become a reality.

“The potential to secure the finances was always there, but it was the government backing that was needed to get it over the line,” he said.

“When we think back to all the initial ground work that we did into how an air ambulance would benefit the areas, all the counties it touched on, it would be some asset.  I suppose that if the idea still runs, then it’s brilliant for everyone.”

A public consultation on how the service should be established and implemented will begin later this month.