What happened

On 24 December 2011 an Agusta Westland AW139 helicopter departed Bankstown Airport in response to an emergency personal locator beacon in the Budderoo National Park, about 16 km west-south-west of Wollongong Airport, New South Wales. On board the helicopter were a pilot, an air crewman, two paramedics and a doctor.

On locating the emergency beacon, the crew identified a seriously injured person on a rock ledge near the bottom of a waterfall. They assessed that it would not be possible to winch emergency personnel directly to the patient. In response, the crew landed at a nearby clear area and devised a plan to access and retrieve the patient. During the retrieval, the patient and one of the paramedics hit rocks at the base of the waterfall. The paramedic died from the impact. The patient was subsequently transported to hospital for treatment.

What the ATSB found

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) identified that, due to reduced light, the paramedic and patient were accidentally pulled from the rock ledge as the helicopter was manoeuvred in preparation to lift them out using its winch.

The ATSB also identified several safety issues relating to training and use of the helicopter’s lighting and radios. A number of organisational issues that could adversely influence the way crews act in similar circumstances were also identified.

What has been done as a result

In response to this accident, the Ambulance Service of New South Wales and the helicopter operator took safety action in respect of the operating scope applied to retrieval operations and procedures used by helicopter emergency crews. In addition, paramedics, in their role as ambulance rescue crewmen, are now required to conduct annual night winching currency training. Finally, proactive safety action was taken by these parties in the areas of general crew training and operational risk assessment.

Safety message

This accident highlights the dangers associated with modifying established procedures in order to complete a difficult, and potentially not previously experienced, rescue task. Specifically, the use of procedures that are neither documented nor trained for by crews makes it difficult to identify hazards and manage the related risks.