Page last updated at 16:21 GMT, Monday, 15 June 2009 17:21 UK

Will air ambulance get off the ground?

By Kevin Magee
BBC Northern Ireland business correspondent

Air ambulance - generic
The idea for an air ambulance for NI was conceived over a drinks

The Northern Ireland public has donated £700,000 for a helicopter air ambulance which has yet to get off the ground.

Most of the money collected by the charity - 90% in its first year - has gone on wages and administration.

The health minister, Michael McGimpsey, said he was bemused as to why the money was being collected for something he believes there is no demand for.

The Ireland Air Ambulance Alpha 5 charity has an unusual genesis.

One of those who helped set it up, Mark Sellers, freely admits the idea was hatched during an evening drinking with friends.

"I was involved with the London Air Ambulance until 2005," he said.

"I came over here for a wedding, got drunk and was asked to bring an air ambulance here as it's the only place in the UK that does not have one."

Since then, the fund-raising arm of the charity has taken off.

Charities are a multi-million pound business and the Ireland Air Ambulance (IAA) is one of the fastest growing in Northern Ireland.

Judging by the response, the idea of having an air ambulance that would cover the northern half of the island of Ireland has captured the public imagination.

But just how realistic is it that this charity will reach its objective within the time frame it predicts?

And how is the money the public is donating being spent?

Overheads

We obtained a copy of the charity's first set of published accounts for the year ending March 2008.

They show that of the £194,000 collected in its first full year, the vast majority - 90% - were spent on staff wages and overheads.

When first asked about this figure, the charity's Gerry Carr denied it was so high.

He said: "It's round about 20%. At no stage has it been as high as between 80% to 90%."

But a leading accountant, Jon D'Arcy who heads up the Belfast office of KPMG, examined the accounts.

He confirmed they show 90% of the charity's income to the year ending March 2008 was spent on wages and administration.

He said: "It's quite likely there will be higher costs in a start-up period in any organisation whether it's a business for profit or a charity.

"Of the total income, 90% is being spent on staff and general administration and 10% being left over for future use."

We contacted the charity again.

Mr Carr said he had not been prepared for our questions first time around.

The charity then released figures that confirm that 90% of the money collected in its first year did go on wages and overheads.

Since it was set up two years ago, the charity said it had raised £700,000.

It said £140,000 (20%) had been set aside to meet the cost of providing a helicopter, and it plans to add another £40,000 to this.

Michael McGimpsey
Michael McGimpsey said there is no need for an air ambulance

The charity said "well in excess of £500,000" (70% or more) has been spent running the charity which includes administration, wages and overheads.

IAA hopes to launch the service in November this year although to date it doesn't know from where.

The charity says it had planned to have a lease signed for a helicopter before the beginning of June.

Speaking at the beginning of last month, Mr Sellers said: "The aircraft is sourced.

"We are signing contracts within the next 10 days. We are very fortunate.

"The company that have supplied us with the aircraft have really looked after us."

But it is understood no lease has been signed.

Frankly, I am bemused that this is progressing the way it is progressing
Michael McGimpsey

And before any air ambulance could become operational, it would need to have robust agreements in place with the health and ambulance services to cover such things as tasking and emergency calls.

Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said these do not exist.

"There have been attempts to discover a protocol or a way forward but to date the proposers for the ambulance have not been able to satisfy the health service as to how this ambulance would operate," Mr McGimpsey said.

"Frankly, I am bemused that this is progressing the way it is progressing.

"We are collecting money for an ambulance helicopter that, as far as I am aware, there has been no order placed for, there has been no understanding created for, and actually when I look hard at it, there is no real need for it.

"The proposed helicopter that you are talking about operates only in good weather and in daylight.

"The maritime agency will provide us with a helicopter in all weathers, day and night, throughout the year so that is our prime resource in the event of needing a helicopter.

'No demand'

"Currently, the demand according to the ambulance service is not there."

The charity said it intends to bring a helicopter to Northern Ireland by November, irrespective of whether or not it will ever leave the ground.

Mr Carr said: "If the Department of Health decided they did not want, need, or require an ambulance service, perhaps on the basis that we never had one in the past, - so why would we need one in the future - then potentially we could have a white elephant.

"My admission is that if the Health Service did turn around and say they did not want this service, there would be a fuelled, ready, staffed air-ambulance, A and E service that would provide for the people... that would not be utilised."

The Air Ambulance Alpha 5 charity is currently planning to give its fund raising blitz an added push.

It said it will soon be doubling the number of collection tins it has placed in the community from 10,000 to 20,000.

Going by its own timetable, it has five months left to reach its target and deliver an air ambulance on behalf of those who are generously supporting the charity.



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