Firefighters responding to 999 calls over heart attacks and other medical emergencies could be ‘next logical step’ says Suffolk ambulance chief
12:00 17 November 2015
Fire crews could soon be sent to 999 medical emergencies in Suffolk if they can get there quicker than an ambulance, we can reveal.
Talks are under way into how the idea could be trialled, and come at a time when all emergency services are having to cope with ever-tightening budgets.
The news emerged yesterday at the official launch of the latest shared fire and ambulance station in Bury St Edmunds, when new East Anglian Ambulance Trust chief Robert Morton said getting fire crews to respond to 999 calls such as heart attacks or choking would be the “next logical step”.
Trials could take place in each of the six counties in the eastern region in the near future, he said.
Last night representatives from the Fire Brigades Union said they were not against the idea in principle as long as the “necessary training and safeguards” were put in place.
Mr Morton stressed that the fire service would not be sent out “instead” of an ambulance. Instead when a 999 call came through, both could be despatched simultaneously. If the fire service was in a position to get there quicker, crews could carry out potentially lifesaving measures until the medical professionals arrived.
“Most of the fire engines already carry defibrillators and fire fighters have a certain level of first aid training and often have to use it,” Mr Morton said.
“What we would be looking to do is to run a trial which results in some kind of formal structure for mobilising fire fighters to medical emergencies.
“The first few minutes of any medical emergency are critical and to have the fire service able to respond rapidly and administer first aid such as CPR or clearing airways could prove vital.”
Because the number of 999 callouts to fires has dropped in Suffolk from 6,500 five years ago to just under 4,800 a year ago Mr Morton believes it may not cost any more to broaden the firefighters’ remit.
The county’s fire chief Mark Hardingham said Suffolk had responded positively to a Government document about establishing a statutory duty for blue light emergency services to work together in a “more effective way than they have in the past”.
He added: “I certainly wouldn’t shy away in the future from potentially having fire fighters in rural communities corresponding alongside their ambulance service colleagues.
“If someone is having a heart attack in Debenham and the ambulance is 25 minutes away but the fire service is just down the road and is in a position to respond quicker, it makes sense for us to attend in the first instance because time is often a crucial factor.
“If Suffolk’s firefighters area able to assist while the paramedics are on the way then I think that’s a good thing.”
Meanwhile Andy Vingoe, chairman of the FBU in Suffolk, said as the emergency services already work with each other out on the road, collaborating on buildings and resources was sensible.
But he added: “I still think the public might struggle with the idea of calling an ambulance and then opening the door to find a fire engine.
“We are currently only trained to deal with trauma. Before we agree to any trials, we want to make sure all the safety measures are put in place so it won’t impact on the public, and members of the fire service are fully protected if something goes wrong.”
The union’s regional secretary Jamie Wyatt added: “As firefighters, we want to help everyone as much as we can but it has to be made clear that although we have advanced first aid training we could never replace a paramedic.”
Currently in Suffolk there are six shared police and fire stations and four housing both ambulance and fire services designed to share property assets, reduce operating costs and improve services for local communities.
The new Bury St Edmunds station which was unveiled yesterday is the biggest. Among the new facilities available on site for the ambulance service is a reporting station that will house up to 28 operational staff, an office for three admin staff, dedicated crew room and locker facilities and three new response vehicle bays.
Facilities to be shared by the two forces include a new ground floor meeting room, kitchenette, welfare facilities, community room and a general office space.
The two services previously shared a facility in the town’s Cornhill area in the early 20th century.