safety at stake


Ambulance workers in particular and health workers in general do not have a monopoly in saving lives, and the more people trained to do cardiac resuscitation the better. Unions such as Unison welcome the introduction of defibrillators on railway stations and in shopping centres. Ambulance Services in rural areas such as Devon, Lincolnshire and parts of Wales, which are under enormous pressure to meet national targets on response times, rightly enter into agreements with the local police or fire service to allow them to be the first to respond. This means police or firefighters can be sent to a life-threatening emergency call to render first aid until the ambulance arrives, which in some areas can take half an hour or longer.

But the organisation of healthcare in London has to be in dire straits when the London Ambulance Service also wants to enter into agreements with the Fire Service and even the St John Ambulance Brigade to play a similar role. A proposed pilot scheme in Tower Hamlets, east London, is at the centre of deep concerns expressed by Unison and the Fire Brigades Union. Currently First Responder schemes in London use trained paramedics attending in cars. Tower Hamlets is one of the busiest areas of the London Ambulance Service.

Funding is at the hub of this proposal (or more to the point — the lack of funding) and a desire by some to have an American-style rescue service. All staff will be jack of all trades, and master of none. The high-quality training and disciplined focus of the traditional British emergency services could be diluted into a confusion of roles, with a lower quality of service.

The Fire Brigades Union is currently fighting the proposals. It is its view that "co-responding" is not a core service and that such schemes cannot be compulsory and could indeed raise questions of liability and legality. As the union says in its London newsletter, "The proposed scheme is badly thought out and would not lead to significant improvements in services to casualties in Tower Hamlets. What would do so is improved funding for the ambulance service."

The emergency services are for emergencies, not for playing games with. It is our safety that is at stake.