FIREFIGHTERS will be asked to step in for busy ambulance officers in Sydney and major regional areas under NSW government plans to meet growing patient demand.
The Australian Medical Association and the union representing fire brigade officers are concerned the proposal will compromise patient safety.
The NSW AMA president, Brian Owler, said fire brigade officers received first-aid training, but it was nowhere near as advanced as training for paramedics.
''Fire brigade officers are trained to fight fires and the first-aid training they receive is a far cry from what they need to deal with a medical emergency,'' Dr Owler said. ''If the ambulance service need more ambulance officers, then that's what they need to provide.
''People need the appropriate training for their job and we shouldn't be trying to keep up the numbers by taking personnel from other areas. You wouldn't expect an ambulance officer to fight a fire.''
NSW Health recently released a report with a range of recommendations for managing increasing demand on ambulance services.
The report, Reform Plan for NSW Ambulance, said the number of ambulance responses increased from 1,149,820 in 2010-11 to 1,183,795 last year.
Of the total for last year, 318,070 were non-emergency responses, including patient transportation and attendance at sporting events.
NSW Health said there was evidence from Victoria to suggest the fire service could play a role in improving emergency response times and patient outcomes.
The Victorian government conducted a pilot study in which fire and ambulance services both responded to medical emergencies, including cardiac arrest, and this was found to decrease response times and improve the chances of patient survival.
''There is evidence to suggest that the fire service could play a role in improving emergency response times and patient outcomes through a First Responder Program,'' the NSW Health report said.
Darin Sullivan, the NSW president of the Fire Brigade Employees Union, said firefighters should be paid for any extra work and the issue was likely to provoke industrial action.
''It looks like firefighters will be forced to take on a role as first responder to support the ambulance service for the first time in NSW,'' he said. ''But with the O'Farrell government's wages policy, it is outside government policy for public sector workers to claim extra pay based on extra work performed. This will be a major reform requiring a formal increase in skills and training.''
The NSW Opposition Leader, John Robertson, described the proposal as ''cost-cutting madness''. ''Instead of hiring extra paramedics and putting more ambulances on the road to meet rising demand, the O'Farrell government is trying to replace them with firefighters who are already being hit with major budget cuts of their own,'' he said.
''Given the O'Farrell government is already closing fire stations and refusing to replace firefighters, this policy will force firefighters to do more with fewer resources and will do nothing to improve [ambulance] response times.''
Fire and rescue officers already provide first aid in remote areas of NSW and those with little or no ambulance cover. Under the new plan, they will assist in Sydney and major regional centres across the state.
A spokeswoman for the NSW Ambulance Service said: ''Given the spread of fire and rescue officers or rural fire volunteers crews across NSW, it makes sense to use these resources to assist when they are not committed to fire suppression activities and where they can make a difference to patient care.''
The plan also recommends abandoning the requirement for psychological assessment through psychometric testing of prospective ambulance officers.