Australia’s top end has long been subject to the tyranny of distance when it comes to medical care but a project by Darwin International Airport is helping overcome that.
The airport’s Emergency Medical Retrieval Precinct has been steadily growing since the fist stage was established in 2011
And earlier this year it added the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre (NCCTRC) to existing tenants CareFlight and the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS).
The new NCCTRC facility is home to the centre’s deployable field hospital and includes a 2500 square-metre air-conditioned warehouse and 1000 square metres of space, including training facilities.
The internationally recognised centre is seen as an important asset for the Northern Territory and Australia’s ability to respond to domestic incidents and those in neighbouring South-East Asia and the Pacific.
It was announced by former Prime Minister John Howard after Darwin’s key role in 2002 Bali bombings and formally established in 2005 by then Health Minister Tony Abbott.
Funded by the Australian Government, it focuses on providing clinical and academic leadership in disaster and trauma care and has strong links to several universities as well as the health departments in the Northern Territory and Queensland.
Incidents in which it has been involved include the aftermath of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, a dengue fever outbreak in the Solomon Islands and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
It also continues to work with the government of Timor-Leste to provide medical support and training and with its counterparts in Indonesia.
The new facility puts the NCCTRC in the same precinct as its fellow aeromedical operators and closer to the RAAF aircraft it will likely use in the event of an emergency.
Nonetheless, it was a long journey to its new home.
“We had conversations with them on and off for literally six years,” Darwin Airport property and operations director Ross Baynes says.
“It was one of those things where you plant the seed and you go back every now and then.
“They always knew that they’d outgrown their current facilities but of course one of their challenges was -securing funding.”
The latest addition to the precinct comes after RFDS in 2017 established its 25th base at an airport.
The iconic outback medical service had been evacuating patients from central Australia and the Kimberley region to Royal Darwin Hospital for eight decades but had been using a hangar sub-lease and shared access with general aviation providers at the airport.
A 15-year lease agreement between the airport and RFDS saw the construction of a $4 million facility.
“They didn’t have a hangar in Darwin, they didn’t have a permanent operation in Darwin,” Baynes notes.
“They shared a facility but as their operations and their demand grew they saw a need for a permanent home of their own so we developed their hangar. They are a long-term tenant of Alice Springs and a big supporter of the airport so we developed this on their behalf.”
But it was CareFlight that had been the catalyst for developing the precinct.
Baynes says the airport was cognizant of the fact that aeromedical retrieval facilities didn’t exist in Darwin to the same level as other parts of the country.
When the NT Government started looking at putting aeromedical retrieval services out to tender, the airport approached it with an offer to develop a centre that would not just cater for its current needs but for 10 to 20 years into the future.
“So we worked with NT Health,” he says. “They managed the tender because we weren’t getting into the business per se of medical retrieval services. We wanted to be an enabler of the facility and of the service.”
Discussions between the two led to a planned hangar quadrupling in size from an originally envisaged 400-500 square metres to more than 2000 square metres.
“That was driven by NT Health understanding better what their requirements would be going forward,” Baynes adds.
A major plank of the airport’s argument has been the continuity provided by its 99-year lease and its ownership by Australian super funds.
Unlike a private developer who could develop an asset and then put it on the market, Baynes was able to argue the airport was in for the long-haul.
The result is an approximately $27.5 million precinct in the airport’s eastern general aviation area that holds its own against counterparts in other Australian cities and with international neighbours to the north.
“We do have the tyranny of distance here,” Baynes says.
“I’m quite parochial and love Darwin — and indeed the Territory — but the simple fact is we’re four and a half hours from the southern ports and the closest one is Adelaide, which is three and a half hours.
“So you need to have better response times. If someone’s lying on the side of the road, heaven forbid, they can’t wait for someone to come up from Adelaide or Brisbane.
“Having these facilities here provides essential infrastructure.”
There is also space earmarked for medium-term expansion if the opportunity arises.
“These things take time and, as I said, with National Critical Care we were speaking on and off for six years,” he notes.
“The gestation periods of tenants and developments can take a long time sometimes and that’s one of the beauties of dealing with the airport.
“We are here for a long time and we’re here to work with them. It’s not what we think works, it’s what we can do for them to make sure that their business works.”
By Steve Creedy
About Steve Creedy
An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.
Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.