As Charlotte Hamilton lay in excruciating pain on the floor of Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest, she thought she might be paralysed.
“Initially I couldn’t feel my legs. I did actually think of another woman who crashed off her mountain bike in the same forest and was now a paraplegic. A little bit of panic set in when my friend, Todd, called 111 and they told him to leave me to find a GPS co-ordinate because they didn’t know where we were.”
Todd Scanlon knew Charlotte’s injuries were serious and leaving her wasn’t an option. Instead, he remembered the First Response Unit had been set up one month prior by the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club. He called their 0800 number and experienced patrollers from Peak Safety were soon at Charlotte’s side, fitting a neck brace and back board before carefully transporting her to a site where a rescue helicopter could land.
“It was such a relief to have them there. It’s a dense forest and there are areas which ambulances can’t get to. These boys knew exactly where we were as soon as we described the track and our surroundings to them.
“The medics were so very careful in their handling of me that day – something I will be eternally grateful for. There is no doubt in my mind that their actions prevented me from becoming a paraplegic.”
That quick response and excellent medical care provided by the First Response Unit was later praised by Charlotte’s doctor who confirmed the outcome could have been “disastrous”. Instead, the 29 year-old police officer has made an excellent recovery from her spinal injuries and is now back at work and out mountain biking once again.
Rotorua Mountain Bike Club (RMTBC) secretary Barbara Jenks is one of several people who were instrumental in establishing the First Response Unit in December 2016. She says she can’t imagine the Whakarewarewa Forest being without the service now. Paid patrollers are on duty each weekend and during peak holiday times, and have attended over 160 callouts in the past 10 months. A similar voluntary service is provided by local business Mountain Bike Rotorua during weekdays.
“There’s nothing else like it in New Zealand at all,” Barbara says. “It’s quite unique for a club to provide this professional service. The patrollers are themselves mountain bikers and therefore familiar with the forest and are able to navigate to an incident much faster than an ambulance.”
As well as providing a swift emergency response and first aid, the patrollers focus on injury prevention by offering basic bike safety and helmet checks, and giving advice to the public about appropriate trails for the level of rider experience.
“It’s often the people who ride above their skill level on average grade trails who get into difficulty,” Barbara says. “But having said that, we do have callouts across all trails and all levels of ability. Our average response time is 7 to 8 minutes which is outstanding when you consider how big the forest is.”
BayTrust has recently given the RMTBC $25,000 to help run the First Response Unit. The money will be used to pay patrollers from Peak Safety and help fund other operating costs such as radios, fuel, signs and stickers for bike helmets which feature the 0800 WHAKA1 phone number.
“We are thrilled to receive this grant. If we don’t receive funding, we can’t run the service, it’s as simple as that. We do rely on donations, grants and fundraising and this money will fund one patroller for about 50 days. It makes a huge difference to receive large sums of money like this.”
Barbara says the club has developed a fantastic relationship with St John ambulance and rescue helicopter services around the region. “They love the fact we can get in there quickly and our guys are experts at dealing with spinal injuries.
“The service gives riders peace of mind that they will be well looked after in the event of an accident, and it ensures that our forest is recognised as a safe, well-managed biking destination of international standard.”