Charity campaigners aiming to establish Ireland's first air ambulance are confident of having it in Ulster skies by next summer — a year earlier than planned.
The Alpha 5 Ireland Air Ambulance Group has revealed it is well on course to have a fully-equipped craft operating from Tyrone County Hospital in Omagh by next June. The charity's plans were to have the purpose-built helicopter operational by May 2010.
While the air ambulance is to be based in the west of the province, it will be able to reach the scene of any emergency across Northern Ireland within the recommended 'golden hour'.
The helicopter will have the capacity to land in a number of open spaces, including streets, car parks and shopping centres.
It can be airborne less than three minutes after a 999 call is received. A trained doctor will be on board with hospital equipment, backed by a paramedic. The air crew will comprise a pilot, co-pilot and winch operator.
Alpha 5 says the service is not just about reaching remote accident scenes or sick and injured people who live outside the 'golden hour' journey from a hospital. It is also about bringing extremely specialised services to any emergency scene.
The Department of Health cannot provide funding towards the air ambulance so Alpha 5 is planning to fund the service itself, with public donations and operate it hand-in-hand with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service.
Charity spokesman Mark Sellers said the launch date came forward after the annual cost of leasing the helicopter was brought down from £2.5m to £1.2m.
"We had a think about the extra lives that could be saved if we were able to launch earlier and we decided that we should go ahead if we could," he said.
Alpha 5 is looking to recruit paramedics and trauma medics to join the air ambulance's crew when it gets airborne next year.
For further information on Alpha 5, call 0870 200 4050 or go to www.aa999.co.uk.