Outback Queensland town becomes first to trial emergency airstrip lanterns for RFDS

Outback Queensland town becomes first to trial emergency airstrip lanterns for RFDS

Date published

11 Mar 2023

From above, Eulo looks as if it simply doesn't exist — a cluster of small buildings barely visible from the air, swallowed up by red dirt and mulga trees.

The south-west Queensland town, around 900 kilometres from Brisbane, prides itself on its quirky community of 95 residents.

But life in the outback isn't always easy, especially during medical emergencies.

"The sense of space and distance is a challenge out here … if we have a medical emergency, it's all systems go," long-time local Nan Pike, considered the town's unofficial mayor, said.

Remoteness, harsh weather and social isolation come with the territory.

Groceries are trucked in weekly. When it rains, the dirt roads turn to red slush.

Eulo Town

The only doctor many see is the GP flown in by the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) every fortnight.

"There isn't really an alternative," Ms Pike said.

"From babies to the elderly … the RFDS is absolutely essential."

Often labelled the key to the outback's survival, the flying doctor provides critical medical services to remote Australia, where getting to a hospital can take hours by road.

But landing on poorly lit airstrips on remote properties can be a difficult and dangerous task for the service's pilots, who can be called to retrieve patients in the dead of night.

A bright idea

Several years ago, after navigating one too many hairy landings in the outback, pilot Nick Tully started investigating an affordable and reliable way to keep airstrips lit up.

"[The RFDS] has been around for 95 years, so we've been landing in the dark for a long time," he said.

He likened flying to some remote properties in far western Queensland to "walking into a dark room".

Light the lanterns

"Sometimes there isn't a light within a hundred kilometres, other than the homestead lights," he said.

Many locals rely on toilet rolls soaked in diesel and set alight, or battery powered LED lights, to illuminate home landing strips.

"A lot of those things take time to set up and not everyone has that on hand when an emergency comes about," Mr Tully said.

So, Mr Tully came up with the idea of diesel-powered lanterns that can be seen from air up to 48 kilometres away.

Eulo is the first town in the country to trial the devices.

"It's a safe and virtually fail-proof system," Mr Tully said.

"The idea behind the lanterns is that there's no maintenance required.

"We've tried to utilise something everyone has on hand … every station out west has access to diesel and a match."

Smoother sailing during emergencies

Until the lanterns arrived in Eulo, Ms Pike said the town's airstrip was essentially unusable at night due to a lack of suitable lighting.

"I think the [community] is very relieved. When we get a call from Charleville, it will be quick sticks down to the shed … and away you go," she said.

Almost 12,000 patients were retrieved by the flying doctor service in Queensland in 2022.

Shonelle Turner said she and her two children had all been picked up by the RFDS at some point.

Her son Jacob was airlifted to Brisbane last year after he sustained a burn to his foot.

Eulo RFDS aircraft

"The RFDS came the very next day, early as they could," he said.

"They made me feel comfortable and I was excited because it was my first time on a plane.

"The lanterns were sourced from The Netherlands and have been handed out to 30 properties around Queensland.

Jane Pike, who runs the town's general store, said the devices would mean smoother sailing during emergencies.

"Something so simple, so practical, just proves we don't have to have fancy technology," she said.

"The RFDS saved my brother's life … so I'm 100 per cent committed."

Doctor shortage

RFDS aircraft

Beyond the fortnightly clinics facilitated by the RFDS, Eulo's nearest doctor is a 45 minute drive away in Cunnamulla.

Cunnamulla typically has two GPs but has been running at half capacity since the start of the year.

Locum doctors are being flown in at great expense to fill the gap, but the local health service said finding staff was a struggle.

"This is a symptom of a broader problem that we are struggling with," Debbie Tennant, executive director of medical services and clinical governance at the South West Hospital and Health Service, said.

"There's a critical shortage of rural doctors, and it's become very challenging to recruit to these sites."

For six days in January there was no doctor in Cunnamulla.

In February, that increased to 11 days and for April, it's predicted the town will go 11 days without a doctor.

"We've been advertising for years for some sites and no-one's putting their hand up," Dr Tennant said.

"We have somebody on the phone all day, every day trying to find locums.

"It's a challenging environment."

Written by Victoria Pengilley, ABC Western Queensland, and photographed by Russell Shakespeare, this article was first published here.