Call to improve Connemara ambulance service has been renewed

By Ellen O’Regan

A campaign group has renewed calls for improved ambulance services in Connemara after a baby was delivered in the back of a car last month while waiting over an hour for an ambulance.

The ambulance responding to the emergency took one hour and eight minutes to reach the carpark of Letterfrack Garda Station, where the couple had pulled in to make the emergency call. It arrived 44 minutes after delivery of the baby.

Father of the baby, Peter Gannon, described the stress of the situation the couple found themselves in:

“Knowing the ambulance was so far away heightened the stress and anxiety in what was an already frantic situation,” he said.

The birth in Letterfrack is the most recent in a string of emergencies which The Connemara Ambulance Crisis group have used to highlight the need for faster ambulance services in Connemara.

The group have been campaigning since 2014 to improve upon existing services, which currently consist of two permanent ambulance bases in Carraroe and Clifden.

These bases cover Connemara’s permanent population of 32,000, plus the constant stream of tourists to the area. If these two ambulances are responding to emergencies, an ambulance travelling from elsewhere in the country can take several hours to arrive.

“Fortunately, I can’t think of any fatalities linked to ambulance response times, but our luck is going to run out. I hope it doesn’t, but it’s playing with lives really,” said Patricia Keane of the campaign group.

Catherine O’Neill, another group member, highlights that back in the eighties, there were two ambulances with a staff working 24 hours a day. As Connemara has been developed so much since then, there’s now a huge strain on the two ambulances.

“Living in a sparsely populated area like Connemara comes with not so much a level of risk, but the expectation of a certain level of service, and I respect that. But what we’re getting is not even a respectful service. It can be nerve wrecking. I couldn’t imagine being 75 or 80, or having a heart condition, and knowing that there is an inadequate service here. It’s frightening,” said Ms O’Neill.

Some progress had been made to set up an Ambulance Deployment Base at Peacocke’s Hotel, Maam Cross, in 2019, which would provide facilities for paramedics strategically deployed to cover the area when the permanent ambulances were responding to emergencies.

“If we got the Deployment Base set up in Maam Cross that would be of help. It’s not going to work miracles, but it would be a starting point for us to improve what is a totally inadequate ambulance service at this moment in time. In June 2019 we were told it would be sorted by Christmas, we’re now into 2021 still fighting for this to be approved,” said Ms Keane.

Senator Seán Kyne, who has been engaging with the National Ambulance Service (NAS) for years about the issue, believes it’s important to continue to pursue Maam Cross. Senator Kyne also mentioned that a Deployment Base is due to open soon in Ballinrobe Primary Care Centre, which would provide greater ambulance coverage for the north Connemara area.

In the past, ambulances tended to be permanently based in a certain area, and only serve that area. Deployment Bases are part of the National Ambulance Service’s newer operating model, focusing on greater interconnection between ambulances, which can travel around Ireland to wherever there is a need for cover.

“Obviously everyone would love a full ambulance service in every community, or within a certain locality, but it is a question of resources and staff. You could set up a permanent ambulance base somewhere in Leenane or Maam but the level of calls would be so little that you wouldn’t actually be getting use out of it,” he said.

Mr Kyne also raised the issue of paramedics being based permanently in these areas who may not have enough opportunity to maintain or improve their skills, if they receive very few emergency calls.

“The person making the emergency call obviously shouldn’t be worrying about what the staff are doing with their time, but at the same time, ambulance staff need to be using their skills, and upskilling, and being challenged.”

“I do understand that what the people of rural Ireland want is equality, and I want that too. We’ll continue to work to improve the services for the people of Connemara, and hopefully we can make progress on a Deployment Base in Maam Cross,” he said. 

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