‘Difficult and dangerous’ life of rescue paramedic

As a helicopter rescue winch operator, Nigel French can’t afford to have an off day, writes Jake Kenny.



Stuff NZ Newspapers



As a helicopter rescue winch operator, Nigel French can’t afford to have an off day. Winches on rescue helicopters are used to extract lost, distressed or injured people from difficult terrain. If bringing them out immediately isn’t possible, often a medic is lowered down at the end of the winch to tend to the patient or patients. Rescues and medic deployment missions often occur in high winds, darkness, over water, forestry or mountains because they can only be reached by air, and French can have multiple lives in his hands at any given time. To keep calm, he reminds himself one thing. ‘‘We are only a small cog in a big wheel . . . just do your best.’’ In his three years as a winch operator, French has experienced just about every ‘‘difficult and dangerous’’ rescue scenario you can think of. He’s pulled people from dense bush, mountains, and in high winds – often in situations that are too volatile to lower a medic into. ‘‘I really enjoy the challenge. ‘‘In a search, you never know what’s going to happen. It’s really rewarding when everything goes to plan.’’ As with anything though, things don’t always go to plan. ‘‘I’ve definitely seen the other sides of these events. You have empathy and you feel for people. ‘‘The more you do it, you learn ways of dealing with it.’’ French was a St John ambulance paramedic for 14 years before applying for helicopter rescue, so is experienced in emergencies – most of which have been road crashes and medical events. An avid outdoors man, he applied for a helicopter rescue role in the hope of seeing more of the environment, and challenging himself. ‘‘I’m very lucky to do what I do and see the places I see.’’ One of his more memorable days in the chopper came when the crew flew out of the Garden City Helicopters base at Christchurch Airport bound for the West Coast for training. They hit low cloud and had to land in a paddock near the Waimakariri River to wait for it to clear. Shortly after landing, they saw the farmer who owned the paddock driving down a long gravel road to meet the crew, in what French described as a ‘‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car’’. ‘‘He came down to say gidday and have a yarn, then went back up the gravel road with smoke pluming from the exhaust. It was hilarious.’’ A more serious, but equally fond memory was a recent rescue mission in ‘‘dense bush’’ near Lake Sumner. With no room to deploy a medic, French successfully extracted the patient. ‘‘The people’s lives you make a difference to feels good.’’ Boat winches and night winches using night-vision goggles were the most challenging jobs, he said. ‘‘They are really difficult, but just as rewarding when things go right.’’ Planning ahead, preparing equipment properly and ‘‘not overthinking it’’ were key mantras on the way to rescues. Teamwork and trust was a huge part of the helicopter rescue culture, he said. ‘‘You need trust with your medic for sure, but you can have a laugh too. I’ve definitely dipped the odd medic in the water in my time.’’ If any member of the rescue team was unhappy with any given situation, the team would always withdraw and regroup to ensure everyone’s safety, he said. ‘‘I take my hat off to the volunteers and those first on scene. We are a small cog in a big wheel, and I want to make sure those people are noted. ‘‘Public support and any fundraising is also much appreciated. We couldn’t do it without help.’’