Once seen mainly as a means of transporting patients, the ambulance service is recognised in the 2000s as the first line of medical treatment in an emergency. Ambulance staff use specialist paramedic skills and sophisticated equipment such as defibrillators. Each day, an average of 1,100 people rely on the ambulance service to treat them and take them to hospital.
In 2008, 250 specially trained doctors and nurses in rural areas belonged to the PRIME scheme. When a medical emergency occurs, they are alerted at the same time as ambulance services, and go to the scene to provide specialist care before the ambulance arrives. The objective is to provide a rapid response to serious illness and injury in areas where it may take longer to get the patient to hospital.
Ambulance service providers
In 2008 St John Ambulance provided around 85% of New Zealand’s road ambulance services, with the remaining 15% covered by Wellington Free Ambulance and the ambulance services of Taranaki District Health Board and Wairarapa District Health Board. Air ambulance services were provided by 18 rescue helicopter trusts, and 12 companies and clubs operating fixed-wing aircraft. These organisations were contracted by the government to ensure all regions had an ambulance service. Rescue helicopters also assisted with police and search and rescue operations.
Ambulance New Zealand, a charitable trust, represented the collective interests of ambulance providers. Volunteers were still a major force in New Zealand’s road and air ambulance services. There were around 2,600 volunteers, and 1,300 paid staff.
In New Zealand and Australia a St John officer is sometimes called a Zambuk. The expression has its origins in the trade name of an ointment used in the early 1900s to treat bruises and sprains.
Three emergency ambulance communications centres, in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, were supported by around 140 call-takers and ambulance dispatchers. The communications centres carried out ‘telephone triage’ – assessing patient needs and the urgency of each situation so that priorities could be set.
In 2006/7 the ambulance service responded to some 280,000 accidents and medical emergencies, and air ambulances flew 8,095 missions.
In 2008 road ambulance services received 85% of their funding from the Department of Health and the Accident Compensation Corporation. The other 15% was from other sources including bequests and fundraising. Air services received only 40–50% of their funding from government; the rest came from public and corporate contributions. Compared with other countries, this was a low level of government funding.
In the early 2000s there was occasionally criticism of the time it took for an ambulance to arrive after an emergency call. Ambulances had sometimes responded to emergencies with one rather than the recommended two crew members. One reason for these problems was the growing difficulty of attracting volunteers. The ambulance service was heavily reliant on volunteer labour, and did not have the money to employ more paid staff.