A contentious program that would enlist firefighters and emergency services volunteers to respond to Illawarra medical emergencies is already operating in 48 locations in NSW, including at Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands.
The Ambulance Service of NSW revealed details of existing Community First Responder arrangements yesterday after the Health Services Union warned its members could strike if the program was rolled out to city areas, as is being considered by the state government.
Personnel from Fire & Rescue NSW, the Rural Fire Service and State Emergency Service have received advanced first aid training and attended 2398 medical emergencies as Community First Responders (CFRs) in country areas in 2011-12.
The first responders were called on when they were closer than the nearest available ambulance, and only after an ambulance had been dispatched, according to an Ambulance Service of NSW spokeswoman.
‘‘This program is not about replacing experienced paramedics,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s about supplementing response times to get to patients as soon as possible, in particular in those cases where every minute is crucial like a cardiac arrest.
‘‘Given the spread of Fire and Rescue officers, Rural Fire Service volunteers and SES crews across NSW it makes sense to use these resources to assist when they are not committed to fire suppression or other rescue activities, and where they can make a difference to patient care.’’
The spokeswoman said first responders were trained by ambulance clinical educators in advanced first aid.
They are trained in basic patient assessment and are able to administer limited medications such as pain relief. They are also able to give oxygen and use a defibrillator. They are equipped with a defibrillator and oxygen resuscitation pack and have communications with responding paramedics.
In the past nine days first responders have attended 20 medical emergencies statewide, including a car accident, a mental health issue and a complaint involving chest pains.
The case put forward by the ambulance service is at odds with that of Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes, who
said this week ‘‘only a clinically trained paramedic can arrive at an emergency with the tools and knowledge necessary to keep a suffering patient alive...our membership have had enough of this and will make their voice heard’’.
The union will hold rallies across the state next week.
Illawarra paramedics have also expressed concern the program is a cost-saving measure, aimed at covering staff shortages.