Lurgan may become a pilot area for firefighters to become first responders at calls for the ambulance service.
The claims have been made by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) though the NI Fire and Rescue Service say the project is in an exploratory phase.
Dermot Rooney, regional chairman of FBU, said plans are in motion for a trial scheme which would see fire crews dispatched in conjunction with ambulance crews.
He said that, essentially, the idea is that if a fire engine and ambulance are both sent to the same incident, the fire crew may arrive first because the ambulance crew may be too busy elsewhere.
Mr Rooney said that the scheme looks set to be “good news for the public”. However, he added that it “wouldn’t be happening if the ambulance service was properly resourced”.
He said that fire crews would only be sent to incidents if an ambulance crew is also dispatched. The fire crew would not take a patient to hospital – that would remain the job of the ambulance crew.
However, they could perform CPR, use a defibrillator, or otherwise try to stabilise the patient before the ambulance arrives.
He gave an example of how the scheme may work: “Say someone in Lurgan centre on Friday night was found along the street with a cardiac event – say they took a heart attack, right? Someone dials 999. The ambulance service will make their normal attendance to that. But, the Fire and Rescue Service will also be informed, and we would attend as well. It would be a matter of “whoever gets there first”. This scheme would “speed up the amount of time a defib would be applied to someone like that.”
“We are currently training people in advance of a trial which will take place in the Lurgan area to start with. They are being trained in “a higher level of first aid”, including greater use of defibrillators.
He said that it is envisaged such a trial would take place in September in Lurgan – although the Department of Health said more work still needs to be done before the launch, and the ambulance service said only that a meeting is scheduled for September.
He said the FBU is only agreeing to a pilot at this stage, because it is not clear who would shoulder the cost, and how much it might eat into the fire brigade’s budget.
“What we wouldn’t want would be for us to take part in Lurgan and for the ambulance service to suddenly decide they didn’t need an ambulance in Lurgan any more because firefighters were doing it.”
Mr Rooney said this in turn could have a knock-on effect on fire cover. “When the firefighters in Lurgan are doing that, they’re not available for emergency calls – there’ll be a debate to be had around that as well. We’ll have to put arrangements in place in terms of backing up fire calls.”
A NIFRS spokesperson said: “We will be exploring future opportunities for collaborative working with Health & Social Care Services and NIAS to deliver an improved service to the community.”
An NIAS spokesperson said: “The NIAS and NIFRS agreed in April 2016, as part of a wider work-stream aimed at improving efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery across the DH family (including NIFRS/HSC), to consider areas for potential enhanced collaborative working including co-response, co-location and training. A meeting is scheduled for September.”