When you dial 999 for an ambulance, did you know that as well as dispatching an ambulance, in some circumstances the service calls a volunteer in your community to attend the emergency if they are likely to get there before the paramedics?
These life-saving volunteers are called Community First Responders. Not every community is fortunate enough to have them, but in West Lothian a Bathgate group was set up seven years ago by Bathgate residents Richard Proctor and Paul Grant. Paul Grant was the Scottish Ambulance Service Area Service Manager for West Lothian and identified that Bathgate could benefit from a Community First Responder group. So along with Richard he set about looking for volunteers – Richard worked in the Ambulance Control Centre (today an active paramedic) in Falkirk and had been involved with Penicuik Community First Responders so was aware of how they provided vital support for the ambulance service.
I spoke to a couple of volunteer Community First Responders locally, Stefan Hickman and Mags Black. “It’s a very specific service, focused on emergencies related to cardiac arrests and suspected heart attack. Situations where getting the right help to someone in those vital first few minutes can make all the difference to the outcome,” explains Stefan. “As Community First Responders living nearby we can often get to someone quicker and that time before the arrival of the ambulance can make all the difference and even save someone’s life.”
As it happens Stefan works for a local family-run first aid training company. “My business and my volunteering work for Community First Responders are really both just an extension of my outlook – I will always go to the help of a neighbour and always have done, so why not formalise that and join the team of on-call volunteers for the ambulance service? For me, having the ability to help is what keeps me doing this.” The local team of volunteers take turns at being on call, having the dedicated phone and kit bag with them, and they scramble to the emergency – just like firemen and paramedics - when a call comes in at any time of the day or night. They put in as many or as few hours on call as they can spare depending on their own circumstances.
Community First Responders come from all walks of life; they have in common the desire to save lives, and the scheme means that just about anyone can do that. They receive intense initial training and monthly refresher courses in the specific situations they are called out for - emergencies where someone has become unresponsive, anything to do with chest and heart, injuries sustained when someone falls when they become unconscious, heart attacks, epilepsy. They are trained in CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] and administering oxygen. “It has a huge impact on survival rates if someone can get there in the first few minutes of cardiac arrest. Once the Ambulance Control Centre has dispatched the ambulance they then dispatch the Community First Responder to get there ideally within that crucial first few minutes.” They are trained to deal with the whole emergency situation, which could include family members panicking, and keeping everyone calm until an ambulance arrives.
Besides being on call themselves, the group is committed to raising awareness of cardiac issues, providing training for the public to help people survive. “It’s about changing the culture. We want to get to a stage where it’s normal for pretty much everyone in society to know what to do when someone loses consciousness or has a heart attack. Scottish Ambulance has a vision to have 500,000 more people trained in Scotland in CPR by 2020.”
With this goal in mind the Bathgate Community First Responders run free training sessions, delivering the British Heart Foundation’s emergency life support programme called “Heartstart” - two hour course covering simple skills that can help save someone’s life. And there is no minimum age for learning this. Unlike a full first aid course which covers a lot of situations Heartstart is just a coupleof hours of basic skills that anyone can learn. Mags Black of the Broxburn group says, “I do training sessions for children from P1 upwards; even if they are physically not able to turn an adult over into recovery position at that stage, it’s a matter of normalising it in our society so that children grow up with that knowledge – so that when someone is unwell it’s normal for just about anyone to know what to do.” They visit all sorts of groups including Brownies, Scouts, Boys Brigade and schools to talk about what Community First Responders do. “A defining moment for me a couple of years ago was when an 11 year old child, who had had the training, was present when his dad had a heart attack,” Mags explains. “The boy knew who to call, what to do whilst waiting for the ambulance and took control of the situation.”
A kit bag for one area of First Responders costs around £3000, besides running costs. All fundraising for this is done by the group themselves. Since the Bathgate group set up, others have come forward in Armadale and Whitburn, Broxburn and Livingston. There is an independent group in Linlithgow, Bo’ness and South Queensferry. Volunteers set the groups up, got the training, raised the money and bought the equipment ... then placed themselves on call in order to save the lives of their neighbours. If you’re looking for a worthy cause to support you’d be hard pressed to find a better one locally.
Please contact them:
* if you’re interested in joining this team of local heroes. (You don’t have to have a first aid or medical background, as you are given all training required)
* if you run a club of any sort and would like your group to receive the 2.5 hour life-saving “Heartstart” training session. Suitable for ages 5 – 105!
* if your organisation has a defibrillator which can be added to the database of publicly-accessible defibrillators.
First published in Konect March 2016
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer