Paramedic fell asleep and crashed ambulance after working 22 hours

The HSE is investigating how a paramedic who was working 22 hours in a row fell asleep at the wheel of an ambulance — writing off the €100,000-plus vehicle.

The Irish Examiner has learned that one of just four ambulances serving the rural West Cork region was involved in the incident at 6am yesterday.

It was returning from bringing a patient to Cork University Hospital.

The incident, which saw the vehicle crash into an ESB poll near Castletownbere, is understood to have occurred after one of the two paramedics in the ambulance fell asleep at the wheel. Neither was seriously injured.

Like other crews, the two-person team had been working since 8am on Thursday. Between 8am and 8pm, they worked a standard 12-hour shift.

However, under current HSE ambulance work rules between Monday and Thursday night, they were also needed “on call” up to 8am on Friday.

This de facto second shift, which patient groups and ambulance crews say endangers the public, is rostered to ensure unexpected needs are met during the week.

On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights it is replaced by a second “on-duty” shift by a separate ambulance crew, due to the higher likelihood of incidents.

However, patient needs often mean the crews are on the road for long parts of the on-call period.

A Labour Court judgment 18 months ago said the on-call weekday shifts must end, as they could lead to excessive hours for paramedics, a move the HSE is implementing in West Cork by Feb 1 next year.

A HSE South spokesperson declined to confirm the details of yesterday’s crash, only saying an “incident” occurred and an “internal investigation is under way”.

However, the Irish Examiner has established that the investigation involves claims that the driver fell asleep at the wheel.

Siptu health sector industrial relations organiser Ted Kenny said the issue highlighted safety concerns over ambulance services in the region, both for health service staff and the public.

“The HSE has to act now with a viewpoint of eliminating on-call, not wait until Feb 1 but to bring it in immediately. It would have been a lot worse if a patient had been travelling in that ambulance when it happened, but does a paramedic have to be killed in the line of duty working on call in order for the HSE to see the danger of it?” he said.

The incident occurred in the week West Cork SOS (Save Our Services) revealed plans for a four-day march, starting on Wednesday, from Clonakilty to CUH to highlight public concerns over ambulance service changes.

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