Communities along a remote 700 kilometre stretch of the only sealed road linking two Australian states are praying there won’t be any major crashes in the area, because the closest ambulance is a very long way away.
Eyre Highway is a 1,660 kilometre road running from the small Western Australian town of Norseman to Port Augusta in South Australia, via the Nullarbor.
Currently there is no volunteer ambulance stationed at the WA roadhouse communities of Balladonia, Caiguna, Cocklebiddy or Madura.
About 18 months ago St John Ambulance (SJA) withdrew the last volunteer ambulance stationed at Cocklebiddy, citing a lack of sufficiently trained volunteers to operate the vehicle in event of an emergency.
There is no ambulance service for a 700 kilometre stretch of the Eyre Highway. (Matt Brann: ABC Rural)
At the start of the Eyre Highway in Norseman, there is one ambulance staffed by two professional paramedics — the next available volunteer ambulance is at Eucla, 710 kilometres to the east.
Troy Pike, manager of the Cocklebiddy Roadhouse and a former volunteer ambulance operator, is agitating to bring an ambulance service back.
“The initial reason the ambulance was taken away was because we had quite a good spell there when we had no accidents,” he said.
“The ambulance was changed out twice by St John and they said, well if you are not going to use it, and you don’t need it out here then we will move it to somewhere else where we can use it.
“Now if there’s a rollover you’ve got one [ambulance] at Norseman and one at Eucla, but the Eucla ambulance isn’t allowed to come anything further than 100 kilometres away in case something happens at Eucla.”
Mr Pike said there had been several accidents lately and he had to travel to the scene in his work ute.
“I responded to a car rollover 40 kilometres the other side of Cocklebiddy, and [my staff at] Madura did the same on the other side of Madura for another bloke,” he said.
“They were both very lucky, they weren’t seriously injured, but we still had to get them checked out.
“I had to put them in the back of the work ute and it’s not very hygienic carrying people in the back of a ute where we do the rubbish runs and stuff like that [but] you’ve got no where else to put them.”
The company directors of the remote roadhouses are currently negotiating with SJA to train staff at the roadhouses.
SJA spokesman Simon Hughes said it could take until the end of the year before staff were trained and a volunteer vehicle made operational again.
“The challenge along the Eyre Highway is that staff are quite short-term hire people and that provides issues of training for us, but we are going to work closely with other roadhouse operators along that highway to work with them to provide the service,” he said.
Mr Hughes said training staff took time and needed commitment from the locals
“It’s not just a simple three-hour training course. It’s an ongoing program that runs over a year because we are providing an ambulance service rather than a first aid service,” he said.
“There’s equipment and medication that isn’t taught in a normal first aid course.”
Mr Hughes said the service would like to reinstate a vehicle as quickly as possible, but it was difficult to say when that would happen.
Simon Hughes says training takes time and commitment from the locals. (Supplied: Simon Hughes)
In the meantime the Royal Flying Doctor Service can provide transport, but the service is limited by where the planes can land, and road crash victims still need to be transported by road to the aircraft.
‘You’ve got to stick together or you’re stuffed’
Troy Pike has given an undertaking to try to provide sufficient staff from his roadhouses to be fully trained by SJA.
“I would like to see the ambulance returned, I know at the end of the day it’s more work for me, I’ve already got Caiguna, Cocklebiddy and Madura to look after, so it does get a bit hectic sometimes but I will always drop everything to go and help someone,” he said.
“I would hate to think that I’m in the middle of nowhere, and if I have an accident which is pretty common in outback areas, I would like to think that someone is coming for me, that I’m not going to be laying there just bleeding out.”
“We are always keen to work with St John, same as the local police and anyone else, because when you’re out in the bush you’ve got to stick together or you’re stuffed.”
The Norseman SJA depot has the only ambulance on the highway until the border town of Eucla. (ABC News: Mark Bennett)
‘It’s only a matter of time’
Troy Pike says in the last 12 months there has not been a call for an ambulance, but it’s only a matter of time before one happens, and the communities on Eyre Highway want to be ready to respond.
“We haven’t had any major accidents, we’ve been very lucky, very lucky,” he said.
“There’s a whole lot of interstate drivers, there’s a lot of overseas drivers, it doesn’t take much to have an accident and no-one’s going to get to them and they’ll just die in the car.”