Medical emergency fears grow

Last updated 00:47 03/06/2008

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Firefighters are increasingly concerned that they are still being called to medical emergencies in place of the overstretched ambulance service.

Seriously ill patients have reportedly phoned 111 and asked for the Fire Service, after 20 minutes of waiting for an ambulance.

When fire crews arrive, they often lack training and equipment needed and have to wait 30 minutes more for the ambulance.

In one case, neighbours of a builder who cut his fingers off called firefighters after an ambulance failed to show.

He was slipping in and out of consciousness and firefighters put him on oxygen and comforted him till the ambulance arrived.

Firefighters say they are happy to do what they can, but are not trained and equipped for many medical emergencies.

"We're a fire service, not a medical unit," one told The Dominion Post.

Medical incidents involving Fire Service callouts have doubled between 2004 and 2007, to 4421 - or 12 a day.

This is in addition to car crashes and other accidents.

Figures released to The Dominion Post show that in about 40 per cent of those cases an ambulance was delayed or not present.

Increasing numbers of medical volunteers are also being called out to help a single-crewed ambulance in a routine medical transfer, or to drive the ambulance while the paramedic tends the patient.

The Government inquired into the struggling ambulance service late last year amid concerns that 70 per cent of ambulances in some areas were single-crewed.

St John Ambulance told Parliament's health committee the service had long been underfunded. It needed double the funding to provide a service - $75 million more over eight years.

Six months on, the committee has not completed its report. Fire and ambulance workers say nothing has improved.

In a submission on behalf of the Fire Service Commission, Dame Margaret Bazley said the Fire Service had "become a backstop provider to a very stressed ambulance services system".

The number of medical callouts between 2004 and 2007 presented numerous concerns including civil liability in the case of misadventure, training, bigger volunteer workload, and retention issues.

The problem had got so bad that in some communities, people phoned 111 and asked for fire, knowing they would get a faster response than the ambulance.

INCREASING STRAIN

The United Fire Brigades Association, representing volunteer brigades, said increasing callouts put pressure on already stretched volunteers.

Board member Ric Carlyon said it was stressful for volunteers confronted by medical emergencies beyond their training.

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"We're filling in for what appears to be a lack of ambulance services in heartland New Zealand. The danger, I suppose, occurs when we're out on another call."

National Distribution Union ambulance spokesman Craig Page said the problem was probably worse than statistics showed. Often ambulances did not call firefighters at all, even if they were delayed.

The ambulance service was "fragmented, under-resourced and lacking leadership".

"I think people just assume that when they dial 111 someone's going to come and they're going to be appropriately qualified."

Wellington Free Ambulance spokesman Ross Cameron said a memorandum of understanding between ambulance and fire staff meant they responded well together to some emergencies.

"In Wellington, it's quite a harmonious relationship."

The ambulance service needed more funding to provide double crewing, but saw emergency services working together.

New Zealand Fire Service spokesman Scott Sargentina denied there was a big increase in ambulance assistance calls.

- The Dominion Post

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