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LIFE-SAVING air ambulance services will be viable in Northern Ireland a year ahead of schedule in September thanks to the generosity of local people.

Ireland Air Ambulance (IAA), which will only be operational during daylight hours, requires funding of approximately £1.5 million per annum to operate from its Omagh base 365 days a year, carrying a specially trained trauma surgeon at all times.

This will allow IAA to deliver vital medical services at the scene of a potential life-threatening emergency across the entire North and West Coast of Ireland.

On Friday last the IAA, which has the capacity to transport a patient from Omagh to The Royal Hospital in Belfast in approximately 15 minutes, carried out a series of time trials in the Tyrone area, landing at its future central base at the Tyrone County Hospital (TCH).

On touching down at the Omagh hospital's helipad on Friday morning, having flown from Enniskillen in a mere six minutes, the IAA crew were greeted by enthusiastic TCH staff.

Mark Sellers, Aviation Director said, "We first started planning to provide a service in Northern Ireland in 2005. Our original aim was to be in the air by the end of 2010.

"We are completely funded by the people. We are not expecting money from the health service and we don't want to put them under any extra pressure. We pay for everything from drugs to fuel.

"The response from the public has been massive, and that is the reason we have been able to advance our plans."

This is largely down to the fundraising efforts of people like Helen Fearon from Armagh, who was in Omagh on Friday morning to present a cheque for £65,000 to the IAA in memory of her 24-year-old son Gerald, who was killed in a road traffic accident in 2006.

Helen, who felt impelled to raise funds to increase the prospect of an air ambulance, said, "I couldn't say if an air ambulance would have saved my son, but it will save lives. The speed in which it can reach an accident with a surgeon onboard is crucial and will save many lives. With the carnage on our roads at present, it is clear how badly needed it is.

"A lot of people who have also lost loved ones on the road have came to me and donated money, thinking this is absolutely brilliant. It should now get full support from the Health Minister to make this happen."

Clinical Director Gwyn Beattie, who is currently working as a doctor in the Royal, said the last remaining step is to work out the logistics of functioning alongside the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service through discussions with the Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey.

Dr Beattie added, "As Omagh is so central, it will always be the base that we start from each day. We have a lot of work still to do with the government and getting integrated into the NHS. We also need to work with the Ambulance service. We can't help their response times, but we can just give them advanced care to the scene."

The helicopter itself costs in the region of £4 million, and the IAA charity will pay for all wages, drugs and fuel.


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