The issue of staffing arrangements in the new ambulance base in Tuam is of concern to me and to many people in north county Galway who, for many decades, have been aware that they live outside the optimum response time zone for ambulance bases in the county. This issue was thrown into sharp relief by the recent tragedy in Tuam. I take this opportunity to sympathise with the families affected by that tragedy on Sunday.
Through discussions with paramedic staff working in Galway, I understand that only two paramedics will be assigned to the new base. This would provide for seven 12 hour shifts in a 14 day working cycle, offering three and four day blocks, with gaps of three and four over a seven day working cycle. The plan appears to fill some of the significant blocks in the roster on an ad hoc basis. Will the Minister of State acknowledge that this is entirely unsatisfactory? Anything less than a 24 hour, seven day week staffing of the base would be equivalent to gambling with the lives of people in my community.
Some months ago there was a near tragedy in Tuam. An emergency call was placed but no ambulance was free to attend from Galway so one was despatched from Loughrea. The response time from Galway is 25 minutes, as the Minister of State may be aware, but the time from Loughrea is 45 to 60 minutes. An ambulance coming from Loughrea which brings a patient back to Galway poses significant risk for the patient concerned. In the case I mentioned, as was also the case in the recent tragedy, off-duty paramedics living in the Tuam community attended the call after receiving an emergency call from the Garda asking them to attend the scene. It is not an unusual occurrence for off-duty emergency medical technicians to be called in, unpaid, to attend after a road traffic accident or a crisis in Tuam, comparable to that of last Sunday. I acknowledge the dedication, commitment and the action of the paramedics and the gardaí. That is important. However, the people of north Galway cannot be asked to be dependent on the goodwill of public servants in terms of their security and circumstances.
From my discussions with the paramedics in Galway, I understand the Tuam base would require 11 shifts in order to provide both 24-7 cover and relief cover to avoid overtime. A new rota for paramedics was introduced in early September. Rotas since then that were shown to me show that shifts in the county are surplus to the staffing requirements of the existing network of ambulance bases. I understand there is a particular emphasis by management to ensure that overtime is not paid in order to maintain what one might argue is a "phantom" shift. In the week ending 14 October there were 14.5 so-called phantom shifts in County Galway and in the week ending 21 October there were 15 such shifts. On the week ending 28 October there were ten shifts that might be described as available, though not in action, in the county.
Some minor amendments to the rota could allow for 24-7 cover in the new Tuam base. I understand that Galway has significant surplus capacity in shifts and that there is significant surplus capacity in the midlands and in County Mayo. Emergency medical technicians travel from Tuam to service Athlone and Mayo where there are surplus shifts in the midlands and in Castlebar.
I have no wish to make a political point using last Sunday's tragedies but the regret I would feel returning home tonight not having spoken in the Dáil, not having reported what I believe are unavoidable situations that occur because of a lack of personnel in my community outweighs the risk of raising this issue.
When is the Minister of State prepared to convene discussions with the head of the ambulance service nationally in order to resolve the situation? Solutions are available.