13 January 2000 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Fire Brigades Service on verge of collapse

By Michael Pierse

``It's outrageous. Most Dubliners would simply not believe what is happening to their emergency services,'' said Sinn Féin Councillor Christy Burke after meeting with Fire Brigade staff this week.

The North Inner City representative was supporting Fire Brigade Ambulance staff, who say the service they provide has become inadequate for the needs - and safety - of a growing city. They are not complaining about wages, or personal working conditions, but about the fact that the people of Dublin are being put at risk because of the thriftiness of the authorities.

According to government statistics, the number of calls being received by the Brigades in Dublin has doubled in the last ten years. Although the most recently published statistics place the number of calls at 78,000 per annum, the number of ambulances on the road has remained the same since 1985. One Ambulance Accident and Emergency worker even ventured to say that ``it's lucky people haven't died... or maybe they have. It's the goodwill of the staff to stretch themselves that keeps the whole system going''.

``This has been going on for some time but it came to a head over Christmas'', one worker explained. On Friday, the day the staff met with Councillor Burke, six of the 11 Fire Brigade ambulances in Dublin had been in attendance at the Mater Hospital at 1.45pm. The ambulance staff could not leave the hospital as they had to cater for patients waiting on queued trolleys in the corridor. Consequently, the pump fire-engine in Finglas had to be called to the Mater to relieve the ambulance staff (a service it is not meant to provide), while the other five ambulances catered for the rest of Dublin. An urgent accident case in Eastwall could only be tended to by the Tallaght ambulance several miles away, leaving the biggest of Dublin's suburbs without emergency cover. Meanwhile, senior administrators continue to deny that this is happening.

``People are getting fire engines when they need ambulances,'' the worker said. ``This is OK when we're dealing with major incidents where immediate on-site treatment is necessary. But with minor problems we end-up `babysitting' until an ambulance arrives, leaving other cases where lives are at risk without cover.'' Ambulance workers spoke of the shock experienced by people who call for an ambulance when a fire brigade pump, which cannot take them to hospital, arrives on their doorstep.

``This situation is indicative of the general grinding-to-a-halt our health services are experiencing,'' says Burke. ``Superior systems in other cities throughout Europe show just how dilapidated our system is, despite unprecedented economic growth'', he continued.

``The workers are calling for a doubling of the number of ambulances in Dublin in tandem with the rise in emergency calls, along with a corresponding rise in recruitment levels. We are supporting this call. The consequences of further inaction simply do not bear thinking about.''

The crisis may already have resulted in deaths, but research is difficult as ambulance workers do not have time these days to fill in compulsory detail sheets after each call. Meanwhile, calls to the emergency services are constantly stacked in order of priority at the call centre in Tara Street. It is a sobering thought that any of us could end up piled at the back of the list because the person who made the call did not sound frantic enough, while the ambulance we need is sitting outside a casualty ward.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1