‘Optimal’ ambulance capability up to a year away

No alternative to deployment of national ambulance control centre, head of HSE says

Tony O’Brien, Director General HSE Health Services Executive. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Tony O’Brien, Director General HSE Health Services Executive. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Fri, Mar 28, 2014, 14:30

The ambulance service will not have “optimal capability” until the deployment of the planned national control service, the head of the Health Service Executive has said.

Speaking this morning, Tony O’Brien said the new centre will be in operation “within twelve months” and its introduction is the “single most important thing that can happen” to improve the service.

“There is no real alternative. If we want to have a national ambulance service that can meet the needs of our population we need a national control centre, it’s really as simple of that,” Mr O’Brien said.

A recent investigation conducted by The Irish Times identified significant delays in ambulance response times. It found that many ambulances are routinely being held up for an hour or more at emergency departments, resulting in them being out of circulation for extended periods of time.

“Fundamentally, until we are able to deploy the total national fleet in a dynamic way and making sure that the nearest available resource is always the one that is deployed - until we get to that point we won’t have the optimal capability to deploy our resources in the way that we want.”

“The single national control centre that will be fully operational within twelve months.

In the meantime, Mr O’Brien said the HSE would examine how the service can best respond to public concern surrounding delays in response times and added that emergency callers should be informed of any likely delays when they call for assistance.

“If there are limitations on the services that can be provided at any given point in time... callers should be made aware of those.” He said the HSE was “open to learning any lessons that present themselves from any event”.

“We will take those on board and examine how we can respond better to the concerns of the population,” he said.

Mr O’Brien said he had “considerable confidence” in the national ambulance service and its leadership and added that the service is dealing with a thousand more calls a month this year than in previous years. This demand, he said, continues to grow.

“We need to examine every possible way to support the ambulance service to meet the changing needs of our population,” he said.

To this end, Mr O’Brien identified three “key issues” that are being addressed.

The first, he said, is the migration towards the national control centre. “We have international experience working with us to bring that about. That will enable all of the resources of the ambulance service to be used in a single cohesive way and that’s not presently possible. When it is possible we will certainly have a better service as a result of it.”

The second, he said, surrounds the size of the ambulance fleet. “We are increasing our fleet. Particular focus in the last year has been on the deployment of intermediate care vehicles.” Mr O’Brien said this measure is designed to ensure that emergency ambulances are not used to transport non-emergency patients.

“Where that deployment has occurred it has proved highly effective and we need to do more of that.”

The third issue, he said, surrounds the numbers of staff in the ambulance service.

“The ambulance service has actually been protected from the general downturn in investment in healthcare systems,” he said.

“Yes, we would have liked to do more, and yes we need to do more, but as compared with the balance of the health service it has been well protected in terms of investment and in terms of staffing. There are significantly more staff now than there were at the end of the Celtic Tiger era.

Mr O’Brien said the HSE has “absolutely no problem” with whistleblowers.

“If people have concerns to raise whether they work for the health service or they don’t, we welcome them doing so. There are obviously ways in which that can be done internally and there are ways that can be done externally. If anyone has any legitimate concern we don’t have some of the issues that some other State organisations appear to have.”