IF you though that tackling blazes and cutting survivors from car crashes were the traditional life-saving duties performed by firefighters, think again - nearly a quarter of the incidents attended by Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service in March have been medical emergencies.

A recently-launched scheme sees the service working with South Central Ambulance Support to as ‘co responders’ – with personnel rushing to help those in medical need.

And to underline the point, the service was called out to give assistance to an elderly man who collapsed in a Wycombe restaurant just as the press photocall to mark this pilot scheme came to an end.

Co-responders are specially-trained firefighters who are dispatched by the South Central Ambulance Service Emergency Operations Centre to a range of medical emergencies to provide life-saving treatment and care to patients before an ambulance arrives on the scene.

Jason Thelwell, Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service’s Chief Operating Officer, said: “We are committed to making Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes the safest places in England. This scheme is a further step towards achieving that aim.

“Our job is to save lives in our community. We do this by preventing and responding to fires and road traffic collisions, and now by responding to medical emergencies. We will always put the needs of the community first, and we will continue to embrace new ways of working to reduce deaths and injuries.”

Co-responding has been running in the area served by Great Missenden Fire Station since June 2011, and is now being trialled at Amersham/Chesham, High Wycombe and Marlow, initially until May 31.

Co-responders have been out to about 165 calls since March 1. During the same period, crews have attended just over 500 other incidents.

This is an average of between five and six co-responder calls a day, with the peak coming during a 14-hour period on Thursday 6 March, when there were 12 calls.

They use a purpose-built co-responder vehicle supplied by SCAS.

The service assures that the availability of fire appliances is not affected by the crewing of the co-responder vehicle.

Depending on the location of the emergency there are times when the fire service personnel can reach the scene faster than the ambulance service, which may have further to travel. As such the  co-responders do not replace emergency ambulances, but can give early medical treatment until an ambulance arrives.

The service says there is clear clinical evidence that rapid basic life-saving skills, with the use of semi-automatic defibrillators and oxygen administration, save lives.

All the co-responders are firefighters, trained to a set standard in basic life-saving skills, and assessed by SCAS instructors.

The co-responders are only sent to agreed types of call, and are backed up by an ambulance service response.

For example, the High Wycombe co-responders have been out to about 80 emergencies, including people with chest pains, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, suspected strokes, burns from scalding and injuries from falls, and people who have had fits or seizures or who have fainted.

Watch Manager Jon Franklin, who was the co-responder on duty at the official launch, was called away just as the photocall was coming to an end to deal with an elderly man who had collapsed in a restaurant.

Steve West, South Central Ambulance Service’s Operations Director, said: “We are really pleased to be working in partnership with Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service to deliver the co-responder scheme, which will be of clear benefit to our patients in the area.

“South Central Ambulance Service works to provide excellent patient service, saving more lives and improving health. The co-responder initiative is an efficient and effective way of delivering this aim. This agreement is designed to make best use of available resources of both organisations for the benefit of the patients.”

The availability period at High Wycombe runs from 8am to 10pm, seven days a week. The schemes at Amersham/Chesham, Great Missenden and Marlow provide on-call availability 24/7.

However, the service says that, for auditing purposes, there will be a flexible approach to maintain a minimum of 75 per cent availability averaged over the trial period.

South Central Ambulance Service are responsible for all costs associated with the operation of this scheme.

The pilot scheme will be reviewed after the completion of the trial period.