“If I was one of the people who had to wait 30 or 40 minutes for an ambulance, you wouldn't be talking to me here today,” declared Cllr John Dolan, during a wide-ranging debate on ambulance response times at the March meeting of Athlone Municipal District.
Cllr Dolan made his remarks after the meeting heard that Athlone has only one ambulance crew on duty every Tuesday and Wednesday night, and two crews on duty for the remainder of the week.
This statistic was given to the meeting by Tom Horwell from the North Leinster Branch of the ambulance service, and his colleague, Martina Bannon, who gave a presentation on the work of the ambulance service, during which they said the average waiting time for an ambulance is 16 minutes and nine minutes for an air ambulance.
However, this figure was disputed by Cllr Dolan, who outlined an incident only last week in Athlone's Little Theatre where an ambulance had to come from Ballinasloe to attend to a person who had collapsed. “The other ambulance was on its way to Clones, and it had to turn back in Longford, and I don't care how fast anyone drives, but you would have to be a supersonic driver to get from Ballinasloe to Athlone in the response times quoted here today,” he said.
Cllr Dolan prefaced his remarks by saying that he was one of “the lucky ones” who had been on the receiving end of the “Trojan work” done by the ambulance service when he suffered a cardiac arrest at his home in Ballinahown in the summer of 2017. “It took 11 minutes for the ambulance to arrive, and I also got a trip in the air ambulance, though I don't remember any of it, and I hate to be in any way critical of the ambulance service, but I have grave concerns for the service the people of Athlone are getting,” said the Fine Gael Cllr and Cathaoirleach of Westmeath County Council.
“We have a student population of around 6,000 in Athlone and another 9,000 people coming into the town to work, apart from the local population, and I think it's not good enough to have only two ambulances,” said Cllr Dolan, who added that he feared that “lives may be lost, or could already have been lost” due to the town not having the ambulance service it deserves.
Independent Cllr Paul Hogan pointed out that Wednesday night has always been “student night” in Athlone, and to have one ambulance on duty to cater for over 6,000 students, as well as other potential emergencies in the greater Athlone area on any given night “is nowhere near sufficient.”
Martina Bannon said the ambulance service has the option to deploy crews from Tullamore, Roscommon and Ballinasloe to cover Athlone on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, while Tom Horwell said it was “a question of resources...we have a defined budget and I would love to put an ambulance station in every town and village, and I would put five ambulances in Athlone if we had the money, but we don't."
“If it's a question of life and death we should be aiming to do better,” said Cllr John Dolan, who suggested that Athlone, with its rapidly growing population, should have access to three permanent ambulance crews. “If not, then why not?” he asked.