Based in Exeter, a team of eight HEMS Dispatchers are responsible for deploying six air ambulances across the South West.

Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance is tasked by a dedicated Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) desk, located at one of the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust clinical hubs in Exeter.

The HEMS desk is paid for by the five air ambulance charities it serves (Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance, Devon Air Ambulance, Cornwall Air Ambulance, Great Western Air Ambulance Charity and Wiltshire Air Ambulance). It is staffed by eight trained dispatchers, who cover the desk for a 20-hour period while any of the air ambulances are operational. Each dispatcher undergoes specialist training before they start in the role. Further training takes place throughout the year, enabling them to keep up to date with the clinical skills offered by each of the air ambulances.

The desk itself is just one of many stations sitting in the clinical hub. The dispatchers have a number of screens that help them monitor every 999-call made to the control room. They cover a dynamic and vast geographical area and play a crucial role in deciding where and when air ambulance services are deployed. They can also call on support from the Coastguard, Police, and Search and Rescue should the need arise.

Deploying the air ambulance

There are several factors taken into account before an air ambulance is deployed. Paul Holmes, HEMS Control Officer explains more:

“The HEMS dispatchers listen and analyse each 999 call that comes through the clinical hub. We assess each one to see if it is appropriate for either the air ambulance, a Critical Care Team or indeed both to attend. The calls are so varied and can be anything from a collapse on a golf course, to a fall from a roof, someone involved in a road traffic incident, or someone who has suffered a cardiac arrest. The team are listening for specific information which will decide whether the air ambulance is deployed [this information has been purposely omitted, to help reduce possible hoax calls].

“When a job is identified, we call the respective air ambulance crew and initially give them key information, such as the location and grid reference (this is so the route can be planned straight away). We then explain the details of how the incident was initially reported. The word ‘reported’ is important here, as it is often a bystander or member of the public that is making the call, not a first responder or paramedic.

“A mapping system on one of the screens allows us to identify the location of the incident down to house level. This enables us to appraise landing conditions and give the aircrew an idea of how close they may be able to get to the incident. Ultimately, however, the pilot will decide on a safe landing location once overhead.

“It is often the case that the Ambulance Service crews arrive at the scene first, however, there are times when the air ambulance is first on scene. We are able to coordinate and update each unit with the respective timings of arrival, together with an update on the status of the patient. It is a role that is very challenging but also very rewarding. Every day you are at work, you never know what is going to happen next, but you always go home feeling like you have made a difference.”

The air ambulance charities in the South West work closely together to ensure that we provide mutual aid. When a patient’s life is in danger, boundaries are not important. No matter who or where you are, the most appropriate air ambulance will be dispatched, ensuring you receive that all important, urgent pre-hospital care.

A very big thank you to every call handler across the country for doing such an amazing job! Also, special thanks to our HEMS Dispatch Team: Paul Holmes, Kelly Vallance, Chloe Kershaw, Jon Hurt, Lucinda Smith, Sara Watson, Rhys Williams and Emma Prynne.