A woman suffering a suspected heart attack waited 40 minutes for an ambulance - despite a fully equipped vehicle sitting in a garage less than 500 metres away.
Rules restricting how and when Martinborough's ambulance can be used mean residents have resorted to reporting a fire whenever they need emergency medical attention - because firefighters respond quicker than ambulance crews.
The town's ambulance, jointly run by St John volunteers and a community trust, is not allowed to transport patients, and is available for "first response" aid only between 6pm and 6am, because Wellington Free Ambulance, not St John, has the Wairarapa emergency contract.
When Meegan Lange's 68-year-old mother suffered sudden, severe pain in her chest, throat and back at 5pm last Saturday, Lange rang 111.
Wellington Free Ambulance, from Masterton, arrived just over 40 minutes later, while Martinborough's vehicle - complete with $5000 of equipment bought with a donation from Toast Martinborough last year - remained in its garage.
"It's ridiculous, Mum could have died," Lange said. "If they've got a fully equipped ambulance here, they should use it."
Her mother was taken to hospital in Masterton and transferred to Wellington for heart surgery the next day. She is now recovering in intensive care.
She was under stress after her father had died in a Martinborough rest home, aged 96, about midday that same day. His funeral is on hold while her condition stabilises.
St John Martinborough Area committee chairman and ambulance volunteer Bill Stephen said the town's ambulance, formerly operated by St John, stayed in the town after Wellington Free won the Wairarapa contract three years ago because it was owned by the Martinborough District Ambulance Trust.
However, it was not allowed to transport patients because it did not have formal ambulance status once that was awarded to Wellington Free. It was limited to a first-response, night-time service partly because of too few volunteers, but also because of the contractual issue.
Wellington Free's Greytown ambulance, which would have arrived in about half the time of the Masterton one, was busy at 5pm last Saturday, he said.
"If it had happened an hour later, she would have got us within five minutes, but because it was before 6pm it was Wellington Free . . . it's a cold fact of life that what happened on Saturday is how the system is now."
Martinborough volunteer fire chief Bill Butzbach said the brigade often responded to medical emergencies and was equipped and trained to do so. "It's no bother to us - it's part of the service."
Wairarapa DHB chief executive Graham Dyer said the emergency response ambulance contract was between Wellington Free and the Ministry of Health, not the DHB.
Wellington Free service delivery manager Robert Ives did not comment on the delay Lange's mother experienced, but said Wellington Free was setting up an additional first response scheme in Wairarapa to complement its ambulances in Masterton and Greytown, all of which were staffed around the clock.
- The Dominion Post