Cornwalll Air Ambulance hits our TV screens
- Credit: Really/Mike Hogan
Chances are you’ve seen the Cornwall Air Ambulance’s distinctive red and yellow helicopter fly overhead at some point. Each year, the air ambulance heads out on more than 750 calls to provide critical care to the most seriously ill and injured people in the county.
Now a new documentary, Cornwall Air 999, provides a detailed look at the incredible work carried out by the team following two months of filming this summer.
‘People are always fascinated by things they don’t fully understand and shows like this provide an opportunity to be a fly on the wall,’ says Thomas Hennessy Jones, a critical care paramedic who features in the 10-part series.
‘As a charity, we welcome anything that helps to raise our profile because we’re so dependent on the public’s generosity, as well as sponsorships, so the series is an opportunity for existing, and hopefully new, supporters to see where the money goes and the difference the air ambulance makes across the county.’
When the UK went into lockdown back in March, the team, based in Newquay, witnessed an increase in DIY accidents as people made the most of their time at home.
By the time the series began filming at the end of July, Cornwall was experiencing an influx of tourists keen to embrace the county’s coastline after weeks indoors.
‘It felt like a normal workload for the summer but it was complicated by the fact we had to bring in extra precautions to protect ourselves and the public from Covid-19, so that meant wearing protective suits and deep cleaning the aircraft every time we flew, so there was an extra layer of complexity to an already complex job,’ explains Thomas.
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‘Although we couldn’t film in people’s homes because of Covid, each episode gives a really good mix of the medical and trauma incidents we go to.’
The series is produced by Beagle Media based in Cornwall. ‘We’ve tried to include a range of stories we hope give an authentic view into what it’s like to be a paramedic and patient,’ says Harry Anscombe, the company’s CEO.
‘Patients include an elderly farmer who’s been run over by a trailer, a girl who’s broken her leg falling off a rock, a lady who’s cut a major artery in her arm and a young woman who potentially has the bend’s from diving. The bravery of the patients is just incredible, and what’s really come across is the strong and warm-hearted personalities of the medics because this is often the worst moment in someone’s life.’
In order to provide a front row seat for the audience, there was a cameraman on board the helicopter, as well as six rigged cameras, and bodycams were worn by the paramedics.
‘We’re just there at the scene, we don’t recreate anything, we just follow the medics and follow the helicopter and all we can do is put a camera and microphone at every possible angle within Covid restrictions,’ notes Harry.
‘That makes it quite a challenge to edit because you have hundreds of hours of footage, but hopefully the show gives you the impression you’re there on site.’
Dawn French, who lives in Cornwall, narrates the episodes, and the paramedics themselves provide background to each case, as well as general observations.
‘For example, I go to a car crash and tend minor injuries but talk about the fact not everyone is so lucky and talk about consequences of not wearing seatbelts,’ says Thomas who’s originally from Tipperary in Ireland.
He trained as a paramedic in London and transferred to East of England Ambulance Service before joining the Essex and Herts Air Ambulance. Then, in 2017, he saw an opening at Cornwall Air Ambulance, ‘an opportunity not to be missed,’ he recalls.
‘Flying over the coastline and seeing Cornwall from the air is quite beautiful. We often see dolphins and whales, it’s an experience like no other really and it’s a really exciting place to be in terms of leading the way in critical care paramedic development.’
The crew is on standby on a 19-hour rota with shifts running from 7am until 5pm and 4pm until 2am, but there is no such thing as a typical day.
‘We never know when the red phone is going to ring with an emergency call and there’s no way of predicting what the nature of that emergency call might be. I’ve started my shift and the first call is a baby not breathing, the next it can be a bus overturned or someone fallen off a cliff, or an ambulance crew requesting support for a patient who has severe difficulty breathing,’ says Thomas.
‘We’re airborne within five minutes of the phone going and potentially heading somewhere we’ve never been before, so we’ve got to do recce from the air, looking at satellite imagery and mapping systems. Our limits in terms of weather are a lot less restrictive than commercial operations, so there are times when we’re flying in low cloud and strong winds. We also need to ensure there aren’t any potential hazards before we land, such as electricity cables, and then we might have to tend to something we’ve never seen before, or the worst emergency call we’ve ever been to. Some days are quieter than others, but it would be unusual to have one without an emergency call and there are other days where you’re out non-stop.’
Understandably, it can be tough, emotionally as well as physically. ‘Even though we may not come back visibly upset, things can play on your mind. We’re not robots, we’re humans and obviously we go to the most critically ill or injured person in the county at any given time and we can all relate to that person in some way. So, it is tough but the experience we have helps to build the mental resilience you need to be able to operate at this level.’
When they’re not in the air, the crew take part in training, carry out audits of the controlled drugs and check equipment so everything is ready to go the moment the phone rings.
They can also spend time to with patients, if requested, as part of their rehabilitation. ‘We give people the opportunity to come in and meet us and ask questions about their care or treatment,’ reveals Thomas.
‘Sometimes it’s a big part of the healing process to come back, see the helicopter and the stretcher they were laid on when they were so ill or injured. It just gives them context and helps to fill in those gaps in what can be a very confusing time. So, we keep ourselves busy and there is always something to do.’
Cornwall Air 999 airs on Tuesdays at 9pm on Really – Freeview 17, Sky 142, Virgin 128, Freesat 160 (cornwallairambulancetrust.org)