Volunteer ambulance crews drafted in to respond to hundreds of urgent callouts
Volunteer ambulance crews were sent to hundreds of urgent callouts across Northern Ireland in the last year.
But experts have warned that the safety of patients could be at risk because those drafted in don't have the same level of training or experience as regular crews.
Figures obtained by the Belfast Telegraph reveal that the St John Ambulance and Red Cross responded to 658 incidents – 80% of which were designated urgent or emergencies – in the past 12 months. In a small number of cases they answered 999 calls.
The number of calls tasked to volunteer crews has increased by a fifth on the previous year.
A paramedic who contacted this newspaper voicing concerns about the issue said he was shocked by the figures.
Another paramedic claimed volunteer crews cannot always administer some of the drugs which patients require as they are not qualified to do so.
Katherine Murphy from the Patients Association, which campaigns for better healthcare, said patients deserved to have access to fully trained and qualified personnel at all times.
"We are concerned to learn that such a high number of emergency call-outs are being handled by volunteer crews," she said.
"Whilst we acknowledge the superb work carried out by the Red Cross and St John Ambulance, there is no substitute for the highly skilled and fully equipped services of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS).
"Patient safety must always come first, and it is essential that a properly funded ambulance service is in place to ensure that patients receive the highest possible standards of care."
Brian Ferguson from Unison, which represents health workers in Northern Ireland, said it raised serious questions about the Ambulance Service's resources.
"This clearly shows a lack of resources within the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service," he said. "There has to be adequate resources to deal with calls and respond to emergencies, regardless of the time of year, and this indicates that is not the case."
However, NIAS said callouts handled by volunteer crews represented less than 1% of its total workload and insisted patient care had not been compromised.
In the 12 months to April this year, 658 callouts resulted in St John Ambulance or, less frequently, Red Cross crews being sent.
Of these, 14 were classed as emergencies, 545 were deemed urgent and the other 99 were described as routine.
The Ambulance Service said the callouts represented just 0.31% of the 209,544 total calls it handled in the same period.
NIAS also said that "urgent" incidents were not 999 calls.
"There are times, when as a result of high levels of activity, that NIAS, as a contingency, will make use of voluntary ambulance services to provide resources to assist with non-emergency work," it said.
"This work is controlled by NIAS through its Emergency Ambulance Control Centre. Part of the mission of the voluntary ambulance services is to assist NHS ambulance services as required and they do so throughout the UK."
NIAS said the increased use of voluntary crews is the result of challenges caused by the reconfiguration of acute services within some trust areas and increasing pressures on the service as a result of turnaround times at hospitals.
It said emergencies responded to by volunteer crews were either upgraded from an urgent GP call as a result of time constraints; providing assistance to transport a patient that NIAS paramedics had already attended to; or the result of collaborative working at major events.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: "The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service has a clear protocol for its use of voluntary ambulance services."
Calls with responses to patients by volunteer crews: