Bringing in firefighters to support ambulance crews could help the NHS cope with soaring demand for emergency services, medical and fire chiefs have said, following early signs of success in a pilot of “fire ambulances” in the east Midlands.
Manned by firefighters, the three ambulances have been used for the past year by Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue as a first responder in the most serious medical emergencies.
Firefighters specially trained in basic emergency care can attend patients while awaiting the arrival of a paramedic from East Midlands Ambulance Service (EMAS), and if necessary transport the patient to hospital.
Although a final assessment of the scheme is not expected until later this year, early figures suggest that patients attended by the fire ambulances have arrived at hospital between 20 and 40 minutes quicker, and that the support of the firefighters has freed up 600 hours’ of ambulance time – meaning paramedic crews are available to respond to other calls more quickly.
Steve Pratten, community response manager at EMAS, said the scheme had attracted interest from fire and ambulance services throughout the UK and the president of the Chief Fire Officers Association, Peter Dartford, said that fire and rescue services in other parts of the country would likely be examining the Lincolnshire example.
So-called ‘blue light collaboration’ has attracted increasing interest among ambulance service chiefs. While demand for ambulances is growing at a rate of around six per cent a year, the number of fire emergencies is falling. Fire and Rescue Services in England had to attend less than 500,000 incidents in 2014/15 – down from more than one million incidents in 2004/05.
Effective fire prevention drives spearheaded by fire and rescue services, including smoke alarm installations and checks, are thought to be factors behind the decrease. The fall in demand means fire brigades in some areas may have extra capacity to assist in medical emergency responses.
“Fire stations are within the heart of every community,” said Mr Pratten. “This is really about getting to patients really quickly, which in a rural county like Lincolnshire we struggle to do. we can’t have an ambulance in every town, every village.
“This is about the five to 10 minutes of care before the paramedic arrives.”
In the Lincolnshire pilot, a fire ambulance – or ‘fambulance’ as control room operators have dubbed them – is only dispatched if it is the nearest potential responder to a red one or red two emergency – the most serious. In all cases, a paramedic in a car is also dispatched, and a paramedic would always travel with a patient if the fire ambulance had to convey them to hospital.
The national Fire Brigades Union said it backed closer collaboration between fire and ambulance services but called for such schemes to be introduced in a “coordinated” way across the UK.
The Association of Ambulance Chief Executives said it was aware of “early positive feedback” from the Lincolnshire pilot but added such a scheme may be “less likely to be suitable in less rural communities”.
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