Faulty satellite navigation systems have led to ambulances being delayed while responding to 999 emergencies, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Crews were delayed while answering potentially life-threatening situations including a cardiac arrest and reports that someone had collapsed.
In one case a crew complained that a faulty satnav was plotting their ambulance in the middle of the sea.
Documents released by the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) revealed there were at least 54 problems reported by crews in a 14-month period — around one every week.
And there are warnings that patients’ lives could be placed at risk because vital minutes are being lost in emergencies.
The Ambulance Service said problems with faulty satnavs occurred just once in every 3,000 calls, and reliability had improved considerably in recent months.
Satellite navigation technology was introduced to ambulances in Northern Ireland in 2008, and problems are recorded on an untoward reporting system.
A copy of the incident log was released to this newspaper after a Freedom of Information request.
It lists 54 incidents which were reported by crews between August 2008 and September last year.
However, in some cases, crews reported multiple problems under one entry, suggesting the actual number of incidents may be much higher.
One incident, logged in November 2008, reads: “Sat nav not working — plotting vehicle in the middle of the sea”.
Another states: “Satnav could not locate address, kept bringing me to opposite side of peace wall”.
Many of the entries state how crews were delayed because of sat nav blunders.
In November 2008, an entry reported: “Tasked to assist ... who were attending a 999 call ‘cardiac arrest’, (the sat nav) failed. Address on screen then read incorrectly. Delay of 20 minutes.”
The Alliance Party’s spokesman on Health, Kieran McCarthy, said he was shocked by the problems.
“This is horrendous and completely unacceptable,” he said. “Lives are being put at risk and there is no way that this should be happening.
“Ambulances are supposed to reach the scene in eight minutes and every second counts in an emergency.
“If an ambulance is depending on a satnav, and if that technology then fails, then it is totally unacceptable. There needs to be an investigation into what is going wrong and, if the technology is not working, it needs to be replaced by something more reliable.”
Michael Mulholland, regional director of the GMB union which represents Northern Ireland’s ambulance drivers, said it was essential that equipment functioned correctly.
“If the Ambulance Service are going to introduce new technology then it’s imperative that they ensure that it is actually capable of fulfiling the purpose which it was bought for,” he said.
John McPoland, from the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, said satnav technology was introduced to complement, rather than replace, crews’ local knowledge.
“Speed of response is central to this process and NIAS has invested in modern command and control systems which make use of digital technology, replacing the older and less reliable analogue systems,” he said.
Mr McPoland confirmed there had been “difficulties in some areas” relating to satnavs.
“Between August 2008 and September 2009, 54 instances of malfunction have been reported,” he added. “During this period NIAS has responded to approximately 160,000 emergency and GP urgent calls, equating to one malfunction per 3,000 calls.
“The majority of these malfunctions, 37, occurred in the initial period, August to December 2008. Instances of malfunction have reduced considerably since then with, except for a few notable spikes, occurrences equating to one per month.”