Welcome end to ambulance staff attending scenes solo - but extra staff won't need to be paramedics

Single-crewed ambulances will be eliminated by 2021, but the majority of the additional staff will not have to be paramedics. 

Emergency medical assistants (EMAs) are likely to accompany many of the paramedics currently attending incidents alone. St John Ambulance says EMAs require five months of training.

Each year 40,000 callouts are attended by a paramedic working alone. Working solo can leave paramedics in precarious positions, and can mean patients are left unattended in the back of an ambulance while the paramedic drives. 

Single-crewed ambulances can also mean a second ambulance is required to attend to additional patients or complicated cases. Once ambulances are double-crewed, the Government expects operational efficiency to improve, with fewer incidents requiring more than one ambulance in attendance.

While ambulance provider St John is pleased with the announcement, the union representing ambulance staff - the Public Service Association (PSA) - say while it's a start, ambulances should be crewed by two paramedics.

An additional 375 emergency medical and paramedic roles will be funded by 2021, the Government  told media at a Budget 2017 announcement on Sunday. Vote Health has committed $31.2 million, with the additional $28 million coming from ACC.

Another 55 roles will be created over the next four years to deal with future increases in demand.

St John expects around 300 of the total 430 new positions will be EMAs, and the rest fully qualified.

Assistant Health Minister Peter Dunne defended the use of EMAs, telling media there will be trained paramedics on every ambulance. 

"These EMAs are people who have a level of skill, are certainly able to work alongside the paramedic," he told media.

"They will be able to assist the paramedic until other emergency services arrive. You've got to contrast that with the current situation, where first of all the ambulance would turn up single-crewed in a large number of rural areas. This is an improvement... It will mean that patients will get a better service."

St John CEO Peter Bradley agreed, saying the announcement is fantastic. 

"We don't want two paramedics in every ambulance. That would be a complete waste of money. We want a paramedic on all our ambulances, and we are working towards that, and we want good support people in there to support our paramedics, and that's what we're doing."

200 cutouts each representing 100 health workers the PSA say are missing from the health system (Newshub)
200 cutouts each representing 100 health workers the PSA say are missing from the health system (Newshub)

But outside the press conference, a group of protesters gathered, flanked by 200 paper cutouts. They say each of the cutouts represents 100 health workers missing from the health system due to $1.85 billion of Government underfunding.

Paramedic Sonia Usal joined the protest, saying while the announcement is a step in the right direction, it's not enough.

"We're an ambulance service and we need to have clinically qualified people in the vehicle," Ms Usal told Newshub.

"When you're looking at rural places, those jobs can take protracted amounts of time. They can [take] four, five, six hours. By having two medically qualified people, we can bounce ideas off of each other, you can show they are on the right treatment path, any other clinical decisions that need to be made, you can discuss that with each other."

Ms Usal said the additional staffing has been a long time coming, after a 2008 select committee inquiry recommended two medically qualified in every ambulance.

But fellow paramedic Geoff Lewis says he's happy with the announcement after working as a single-crewed ambulance officer in Ngāruawāhia.

"It means a lot to me - knowing I've got somebody that's going to be a work colleague that's going to work with me out in the field. 

"The biggest thing is my safety. Having someone that can be there to watch my back, someone who can assist me in managing the scene, helping draw up the appropriate medications I need to have for the patient."

Mr Lewis said if a crew member could drive the ambulance for him, he could prepare medications and a plan on the way to a scene. 

He hopes everyone will be upskilled at some point in the future.