The lives of the public are being put at risk in parts of Yorkshire because firefighters are left to respond to medical emergencies that should be dealt with by paramedics, it was claimed today.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) says there have been several recent incidents in South Yorkshire where fire crews have been called to assist the ambulance service only for medics not to turn up or be severely delayed.
Yorkshire Ambulance Service has admitted that the high number of 999 calls it has received in recent months has slowed its response times.
During one recent incident in South Yorkshire cited by the union, firefighters responded to a request to gain entry from a concerned family member who was unable to contact their elderly relative.
When firefighters got into the property they found a lady had collapsed and stopped breathing. When an ambulance arrived 45 minutes later paramedics are said to have revealed that they were stood down en route after being told firefighters would be responding.
In another incident, firefighters were left unable to respond to fire calls for two hours after attending a property where a woman had fallen and hit her head.
No ambulance was available, according to the FBU, and firefighters stayed with her for two hours until they were forced to leave to respond to other incidents, leaving the woman on her own.
According to the union, only around a third of South Yorkshire’s firefighters have completed a four-day course enabling them to provide initial first aid. South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service says five firefighters go out on every call, so there is rarely no-one on board who has had the training.
Earlier this year, the FBU said fire engines were being used as makeshift ambulances because of delays caused by overstretched and under-resourced A&E departments across the UK.
In York recently, firefighters were forced to take an elderly women, who had fallen and hit her head on the road, to hospital as ambulances were apparently stuck in a queue for hours to drop off patients at A&E.
Ian Murray, vice-president of the FBU, said: “Firefighters routinely train to deal with fires, flooding, terrorism and rescue emergencies but South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service are mobilising fire crews to incidents they are not trained to deal with.
“We know only a small percentage of firefighters are trained to give basic first aid.
“It is irresponsible and dangerous to put untrained firefighters in the position of attending incidents to assist the ambulance service, with the knowledge that it is highly unlikely one will arrive for some considerable time and as such leaving the fire crews to deal with a medical emergency they are not trained to deal with.
“The coalition government is guilty of presiding over an A&E crisis where ambulance and paramedics are dangerously overstretched. The current situation cannot continue.”
Graham Wilkinson, chair of the FBU in South Yorkshire, said: “This is irresponsible plain and simple. Even the deputy chief fire officer of South Yorkshire John Roberts admits that we’re not the primary service for these sort of emergencies.”
Responding to the claims, South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service said: “We are an emergency service and we respond to 999 calls when people need our assistance. It would be strange if anyone suggested we do anything different.
“We are clear that we are not a replacement for the ambulance service. We attend medical emergencies to help the ambulance service to gain entry, not as a primary responder, and we would expect ambulance crews to respond alongside us in a timely manner.
“Our crews have significant experience of medical intervention at road traffic collisions. Fire engines are staffed with five firefighters, at least one of whom is likely to be medically-trained.
“They would never make a medical situation worse and, if they can improve a casualty’s prospects or make them more comfortable, we believe everyone would expect them to do so.
“We know our firefighters are very positive about showing the full range of skills they have to provide excellent value to the public. At a time when fires have reduced by two-thirds in ten years, we would encourage the FBU to be more positive about the contribution our staff can make to serve the communities of South Yorkshire.”
Ben Holdaway, Locality Director of the Emergency Operations Centre at Yorkshire Ambulance Service, said: “We work closely with our emergency service partners to help people in need across the region and are always grateful of the assistance they provide to us.
“In recent months we have been experiencing a very high number of 999 calls across Yorkshire and the Humber, particularly with incidents involving seriously ill or injured patients, and this increase in activity has affected our response times.
“We are very supportive of our emergency service colleagues and the fantastic work they do. We are also mindful that extended response times can have an impact on them when they are attending incidents alongside us.”