Conor Gallagher reports today in The Irish Times on yesterday's Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, conference on the future of air ambulance services. The air ambulance service, currently based in Athlone, provides immediate access for people who become suddenly or acutely ill to a central hospital and life-saving treatment. It was introduced to supplement the traditional road-based ambulance service and allows people who live in remote areas, who have been involved in a road traffic accidents in urban areas or who suffer from heart, brain or other acute illnesses rapid access to a major hospital.
In 2018, the service dealt with 159 road traffic accidents and 146 medical emergencies. That gives a sense of the difference made by the service to lives, families and communities across the country on a daily basis. Every Deputy in the House knows that the ambulance service is under inordinate pressure and ambulance response times are far longer than they should be. The latest figures provided in response to parliamentary questions for the north west, west, midlands, south east and south west show that, on average, only half of the calls reached a patient in less than the recommended time of 19 minutes and many calls are in excess of the hour necessary. The air ambulance service is important and has worked and provided certainty for medical professionals, families and those involved in acute situations.
At the RACO conference yesterday, it was revealed that the Defence Forces are no longer in a position to staff the service comprehensively as it currently exists. Lieutenant colonels and senior management are being forced to fly the service because those who have traditionally flown have left the Defence Forces. It is another sign of the flight from our Defence Forces, a flight which has occurred despite an underspend on salaries within the Defence Forces. Deputies Chambers and O'Loughlin and many others have consistently brought this to the attention of the Government, but it has ignored the issue. As a consequence of that, the air ambulance service is now under threat. People in communities around the country have read the report and are worried.
Can the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, accept that there are problems in the air ambulance service and give a guarantee on behalf of the Government that it will continue to provide the current level of service and response times? When will the Government finally cop on and wake up to what it is doing to our Defence Forces? It is standing by while people are leaving the Defence Forces in droves and services such as this are being affected. Can the Minister confirm he has read the report and that there will be a Government response?