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Another massive decade for MTB in RotoruaThe Suspension LabMoerangi - Iconic back-country ridingThe Inside Line - Local knowledge from Rotorua riders MAN DOWN - Rotorua's First Response Unit in action


With the aim of being as informed and authentic as possible when writing a story about Rotorua’s First Response Unit, I was assigned the unenviable task of crashing on a trail in the Whakarewarewa Forest to experience the Unit’s service first hand. I did a good job of it too, with a dislocated shoulder on a track in a reasonably difficult to reach location.


Of course, that is a complete pack of lies. No one wants to crash, let alone suffer an injury and its associated downtime off the bike. My unfortunate incident was unexpected - finding myself lying on the ground wondering what happened, then realising that my arm didn’t seem to be attached to my shoulder as it should be. However, if there is any silver lining to that painful day, it’s the insight it provides to the First Response Unit from a grateful user of the service.




Before I talk a bit about my own experience of the First Response in the Whakarewarewa Forest, it's worth getting a handle on what the service is, who has been behind getting this immeasurably valuable service up and running in Rotorua and get some insight from the responders out there in the forest.


Is it like a Ski Patrol?

Sort of but not really; ski fields and commercial mountain bike parks (the kind where you pay for daily access or lift passes) cover the costs of their safety/medical patrols within the price of lift tickets. Rotorua’s freely available trail network is a completely different scenario, with the practicalities of providing a medical response service facing a major issue because of funding - or lack of it.


With approximately half a million recreational visitors to the Whakarewarewa Forest each year, and a large number of them being mountain bikers, there is an obvious need for the service. It exists because of the passionate drive of key people and is achievable so far because of funding, predominantly from ACC and charitable organisations First Sovereign, Rotorua Energy Charitable Trust, The Southern Trust and the NZ Community Trust, with individuals donating to the service as well.


Unsung heroes.

The Service is administered through the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club, but there are several other groups, businesses and individuals who have been instrumental in getting the unit up and running with a view to a long-term service:


Wendy Ardern Wendy come across an accident while riding and realised how much some kind of first aid resource was needed. She was instrumental in sourcing initial funding from First Sovereign charity for medical supplies and a defibrillator at Mountain Bike Rotorua (MBR). At that time MBR were using their own resources and their own vehicles to help injured riders.


Barbara Jenks and Erin Eggleston Barbara was involved with Wendy’s early initiative and ended up joining the Rotorua Mountain Bike club committee, continuing the project through to its current state. Along with Erin’s role in the MTB club Barbara has had extensive involvement negotiating with key stakeholders such as the iwi who are the forest owners, the local council, forest management company, St. John's ambulance service, and charity funding organisations.


Peak Safety Mark ‘Budgie’ Woods, Henry Worsp and Nick Morrison head up the team of professional medics at Peak Safety. They adapt their service to provide medical responders as often as possible within the available budget. That means on a rainy day they’ll liaise with MBR and if the forest is not busy will leave MBR to staff the service. Similarly when it’s not too busy they will have one medic working rather than the ideal of two medics. This is all in aid of stretching the funding dollars further to allow the service to operate as often as possible.


Mountain Bike Rotorua

Brothers Tu and Tak Mutu of MBR have provided support to riders needing medical assistance and extraction from the forest. From the early days of using their own vehicles they now always have rostered on a staff member with PHEC (Pre-Hospital Emergency Care) qualifications. With Peak Safety’s professional medics operating the service on weekends, school holidays, public holidays and busy times such as Crankworx week, MBR operates the vehicle the rest of the time. “We fill the gaps” says Tu. “Peak Safety are the people who train us, so they’re absolutely the experts in the field. We offer a service that sits in between, that covers some bases and keeps the service running when it’s not manned by Peak’s staff.” When asked about the costs to the business to do this, Tu states “It’s a space that needs occupying, and we feel a responsibility to the community to do that. It can be hard on the team when a staff member has to down tools to help with an injured rider, but our customers are understanding if we’re short staffed because we’re helping fellow riders.”


The right gear and the skills to use it.

A considerable point of difference is the nature of Peak and MBR’s staff offering a geographically informed service. They’re all mountain bikers, so essentially that means they know the forest like the back of their hand - when a call comes in from a panicked or stressed patient they’re going to be in a good position to figure out where they are and the most effective way to get to them and help them out.


A Yamaha Viking is the off road vehicle used by the First Response Unit, modified to transport a backboard and all the relevant medical supplies necessary. In true mountain biker style, the suspension on the Viking has been improved with a custom-ordered upgrade from overseas to ensure high performance handling with the additional weight of a fully loaded vehicle with all supplies and a patient on-board.




A bike rack on the front of the vehicle provides further flexibility, with the medics carrying their own bikes at all times so they can drive as close as possible then ride in to isolated locations.


Peak continues to work with MBR to constantly up skill and train new staff to PHEC qualifications.


A special device they make use of is a backboard on a wheel. Budgie explains; “you’d usually have six people carrying a patient on a backboard, with more people in the team to change places because you can’t carry that for very long. With this we can manage a patient with just two of us - which is especially effective on narrow trails.”

There is more on the wish list though. Top of Budgie's list is an e-bike. “Because two things can happen at once, and we have a massive area to cover, having two medics, the vehicle, as well as an electric bike would be a pretty good scenario. The e-bike means we could split up, cover a lot of ground and get onto tracks to be more effective.”

Budgie is keen to stress their role is proactive as well. “We’re not just the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff - we seek to prevent accidents. One aspect is our capture of information on every call-out, and part of that is identifying if any features relating to the accident are out of character with the grade of the trail. That feedback is then forwarded to the Rotorua Trails Trust for further action if trails need modification.”

From the other side of the fence.

Usually I would have done a one-day ‘ride-along’ with the First Responders to research this story. My well-timed crash provided a different viewpoint, which hit home with a few harsh truths.


As I picked myself up immediately after my accident I knew something was seriously wrong with my arm. I’ve had my fair share of crashes and associated broken bones over my considerable time racing and riding, but this was something new to me. One thing I did recognise immediately was that I had to get myself to a better location as quickly as possible, before the adrenaline wore off and the pain ramped up even more.


I managed to get my backpack off to get my phone and try to call my mates I was riding with, who were further down the trail. I couldn’t get service, so was on my own for the moment. I was on singletrack with a few long traverses across a hillside before crossing an old forestry road. I was able to walk with my good hand holding my bike and shortcut across an open section to get to an old gravel road skid site. At this stage my mates had come back looking for me so we started figuring out how to get help.


They rang 111, trusting the service would get the right people in action. It became apparent that it would take a while for those processes to kick in, as the 111 operator has to relay messages before eventually getting to the First Response Unit.


We then contacted the unit via MBR - this provided the fastest action, and because we’d called 111 already there was an ambulance sorted to meet us at the forest gate. There is surely a great deal more communication that goes on behind the scenes between the 111 operator, St. John’s ambulance service and the First Response Unit. Ideally, we would have called the Unit directly on 0800 WHAKA 1 rather than adding another step to the communication process by calling MBR. That First Response Unit number is etched in our brains now.


Sitting at the roadside in considerable pain I had plenty of time to mull over my options while waiting for help. Walking out was virtually unthinkable due to the pain I was in - I was sore enough to feel nauseous even sitting still. If we didn’t know the First Responders were on the way we would have been trying to phone someone with access to get a vehicle in to me. That would have presented more issues with being in an isolated spot that was not easy to describe the location of, or to get vehicle access to.

When the unit’s vehicle arrived it was an immense relief - being able to trust in the abilities and knowledge of a highly trained and experienced medic. Zoe was my saviour that day, and like many of Peak’s staff is a mountain biker herself.


A quick assessment, immobilising the busted arm as well as possible, some pain medication and it was off on a bumpy ride out on gravel roads to meet the ambulance before continuing the ride to the hospital.


At times like that priorities are on well-being, but it was certainly welcome to know that my bike was safely on the Viking’s bike rack, and Zoe would drop it along with my pack and helmet to MBR. They would be safely stored there until such time as my mates could get there to collect them.


From my experience I hate to imagine the alternatives if the First Response Unit hadn’t been there to help me get out to a point the ambulance could reach.


NZ Healthcare system

Unfortunate though my accident was, a side effect has been that I've had plenty of time to reflect on how robust New Zealand's taxpayer funded ACC (Accident Compensation Coroporation) system is. Having immediate, and then continuing access to top quality medical services without having to pay for it is truly outstanding. From the initial hospital admittance, to subsequent X-Rays and MRIs, to the end result of surgery to repair torn ligaments and broken bones.


Our friends visiting from overseas can rest assured that they have access to free public healthcare if they crash while riding in NZ. It is a foreign concept for many who are used to needing medical insurance or being turned away (or racking up huge expenses) in the event of a crash, but is something we Kiwi riders often take for granted.


At the extreme.

Although my injury was debilitating enough, there are of course far worse scenarios - often involving head or spine injuries. A recent example of that, and the First Response Unit’s value to an individual, is the case of Charlotte Hamilton.


Charlotte was injured in a crash with the ominous symptoms of tingling arms and no feeling in her legs. She was ultimately extracted on a backboard by the First Response Unit to the MBR HQ before being airlifted to hospital.


A subsequent operation and rehabilitation means it is anticipated that Charlotte will make a full recovery. The story could have been far different though. An extract from a letter of thanks she sent is backed up by a similar one from her doctor: “The medics were so very careful with their handling of me that day, something I will be eternally grateful for. There is no doubt in my mind that the actions of the medics prevented me from becoming a paraplegic.”

Regardless of the ACC’s mandate to mitigate severe injuries and identify causes, this is a shining example of the service’s benefit for an individual. Charlotte’s life could have taken a very different turn during those crucial hours and it’s humbling to think that we never really know when we’re going to be on the receiving end of a crash.


What to do if you ride in Rotorua.

Remember this number. Commit it to memory, or better still save it in your cell phone. 0800 Whaka 1 is the direct number to call if a rider needs assistance.


Call the First Response Unit if you need medical assistance, but if it’s something that may need an ambulance then call 111 first, then the First Response Unit.


The Unit and St. John's Ambulance work closely together, and the combination of their services is maximised when an ambulance is needed by calling 111 first so they can get the wheels in motion for ambulance extraction (or helicopter if it’s very serious).


Make a donation to the service. The mountain bike club’s website has a dedicated donation page at www.mtbclub.org.nz. It’s a registered charity so your donation is tax deductible.

If you’re involved with a business and would like to sponsor the service there are several tiers of sponsorship. Contact Erin Eggleston or Barbara Jenks through the contact page on the mountain bike club website.


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Originally published in New Zealand Mountain Biker magazine. Writing and Photography: Nick Lambert