Magpas Air Ambulance has just moved into the charity’s new home in Alconbury Weald: a purpose built airbase, headquarters and training centre.
A huge amount of work has gone into the creation of this new building, something Magpas Air Ambulance Director of Operations, Natalie Church, knows all too well.
How long have you worked for Magpas Air Ambulance?
I joined the charity in March 2001. I joined as a temp 22 years ago to help with the admin, when there were only three people in the office (including me).
This was back when the charity was still operating with 60-70 individual doctors responding to emergencies in their own cars, operating from their homes or GP surgeries, and I very quickly found myself enjoying the operational side of the charity much more. I loved delving into how the system worked for the doctors to be called out; I got involved in equipment management; and I spent days stock-checking all the equipment the doctors were carrying. This involved travelling to their GP surgeries and rifling through the boots of their cars, checking items off the inventory and ensuring they had all the equipment they needed to continue to help patients in Cambridgeshire. As the charity grew, so did my interest in operations, so that’s what I stuck with.
Throughout my career here I’ve always held myself accountable and placed my own professional development high on my list of priorities, which has led me to where I am today. I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to develop my skills and always strived to take on more responsibility in my work. Managing the operational aspect of this service has been a challenge, but something I’m so proud and passionate to do.
I’ve overseen some big changes and progressions in the service in my time here: the service developing into the doctor/paramedic team we have now, taking over the old police helicopter base and tendering for our own aircraft... And now overseeing the construction of our new home!
What were the office/base facilities like when you joined?
Initially, the three of us were based in a two-room office above a SPAR in Cambridge. It was very old school, and nothing was digitalised—we literally had a whole room full of paper! And we didn’t need any clinical facilities as the doctors responded from their own surgeries.
Following the SPAR, we moved to a slightly bigger office in St Ives, which also happened to be above a petrol station. It was here we had the breathing room to develop the service more into what we hoped it would become. It’s where the intro of the dedicated doctor/paramedic team took place, our first training course was facilitated in that building, and our office team grew by a few members here too!
Then, when we started working with the police air support unit, all our operations—including desks, equipment, and team members—were in one room of their base. However, when the police helicopter service disbanded, we took over the whole building, which remained the Magpas Air Ambulance operations base... Up until now!
Would you say managing the new base project has been your biggest project yet?
I probably would describe this as my biggest project to date because it involved an entirely new skillset and knowledge to pull off. Other than renovating my own home, I’d never done anything like this before!
Overseeing this monumental development, on top of my actual job where I was still managing all of Magpas Air Ambulance’s operations, has been challenging to say the least, but it’s been so, so worth it.
Can you give a snapshot of what it entailed?
Our CEO and I represented ‘the client’: Magpas Air Ambulance, and we were immersed in the process from the very beginning, with our first jobs consisting of sourcing and purchasing the land, appointing an architect and finding the right construction company for the project.
From there I attended every project meeting, visited the site fortnightly and became the voice for every single decision... Even down to where each plug socket should go.
We really concentrated on the design and flow of the building right from the beginning—in consultation with staff and team members—which I’m proud to say remained at the centre of our decision making throughout the build. The new base has been designed with clinical operation in mind. The flow of the building will help us dispatch quicker and be online after incidents faster; the facilities are designed to truly support our clinicians providing a 24/7 service; and the charity element of our service has also been well considered with the fundraising team being based just upstairs and the new building’s visitor centre to be opened in due course.
What was the most enjoyable part of the process?
I love a bit of interior design, so being able to choose the finishes was a fun part of the project and seeing the decisions made in meeting rooms come to life was amazing.
Something else that I actually found enjoyable was working with the project team and looking at how we could save money while still providing state-of-the-art premises. We managed to value-engineer £1million out of the build, and although it was a real challenge, it feels like an achievement to have barely gone over budget—especially with Brexit delaying the build and boosting prices of materials.
What was the least?
Before we could move our operational service over from RAF Wyton to Alconbury Weald, we had to have a Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspection so they could sign the building off for operational use, agreeing that outstanding patient care, our clinicians, security and so on had all been considered. Having that inspection take place, just two days after our royal opening with HRH The Princess Royal, was not good for my blood pressure!
What are the memorable moments?
There are so many moments throughout the process that stand out: the first spade in the ground, when walls and rooms started to appear, showing team members around for the first time... However, my most memorable moment was probably the week before we opened the base and moved in. Every desk, table, chair and shelf needed building and the team effort from Magpas Air Ambulance staff was phenomenal. Dozens of staff turned up in the hot weather with any tools they had, and friends and family members in tow, and everyone truly mucked in to get the work done in time. It was like a team building exercise in disguise, and I felt incredibly proud of everyone involved.
What will this mean for Magpas Air Ambulance?
I think this building will create opportunities for the charity. There are so many things we’ve wanted to do for such a long time—this building now reflects the outstanding organisation we are, that we couldn’t showcase in the facilities we had before.
How does it feel to see this huge milestone and have been so integral to this new building, considering how long you’ve been with Magpas Air Ambulance and how far you’ve personally seen the charity progress?
Magpas Air Ambulance’s core values are caring, pioneering, dedicated and proud—and I think between us all, we’ve demonstrated every one of these throughout this project, and I’ve really felt these values in the past month or so as it’s all come together. They’re embedded in us.
Magpas Air Ambulance has a true place in my heart, and although the project has all consumed me once again, I feel so proud of everything I, and the entire Magpas Air Ambulance family, have accomplished.