AMBULANCE bosses are planning to use fire-fighters as ‘first responders’ to people having a cardiac arrest, at the same time as drawing up controversial plans to sell off rural ambulance stations.

A pilot scheme designed to speed up the response to medical emergencies has been launched jointly by County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service and the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) in the Durham Dales.

Already underway in Middleton-in-Teesdale, the scheme will be rolled out to Stanhope, in Weardale, and is due to run until March.

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As part of the project, which has been tried in other parts of the country, fire-fighters have received special training from ambulance staff so they can respond to a limited range of medical emergencies. This includes helping people who have had chest pains, breathing problems and cardiac arrests.

But at the same time the NEAS has quietly drawn up plans to close and sell off ambulance stations in Middleton-in-Teesdale and St John’s Chapel, at the top of Weardale.

Brief details of the sell-off plans were contained at the end of a 20 page document which went before the last NEAS board.

The closure plans have been condemned by Councillor John Shuttleworth, who represents Weardale on Durham County Council .

The Independent councillor accused the NEAS of seeking to close the stations without fully informing local people.

He said the plans to dispose of the two ambulance stations during 2015-16 had not been publicised because of the reaction they would provoke in the Durham Dales.

“They knew that if they publicised these details they would have to explain their actions to 200 people at a public meeting ,” said Coun Shuttleworth.

He added: “My concern is that this pilot scheme could eventually undermine ambulance provision.”

Conservative councillor Richard Bell, who represents Barnard Castle West, said: “I welcome the first responder extra capacity offered by the fire service, but this mustn’t be allowed to let NEAS off the hook in their duty to provide a quick backup response of qualified paramedics. The presence of the ambulance stations at St John’s and Middleton is important because it anchors the ambulances and paramedics in the dales to some extent.

“I and most people in the Dales will need a lot of convincing it’s safe to close the stations and we will resist any such proposal,” he added.

Joy Urwin, spokeswoman for the Durham Dales Ambulance Monitoring Group said: “Any proposal to close the ambulance stations in Middleton-in-Teesdale and St John's Chapel would be strongly opposed by the communities.”

Clive Scott, who lives in Upper Teesdale, said: “I think it’s a disgrace. This part of the county is being forgotten about.”

Charles Owston, from Middleton-in-Teesdale, said: “All the talk about ten minute response times for a heart attack is just not going to happen here.”

Keith Wanley, area manager for County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service said: “All fire-fighters have extensive training in providing emergency care. This is just an extension to an existing role but one that will save even more lives.”

The fire service will only be called on when fire-fighters are able to attend an incident quicker than the NEAS and an ambulance will be despatched to the scene at the same time.

A spokeswoman for the NEAS said: “Our partnership with the fire service is a win-win situation for everyone. It is an extra resource for the area. People can rest assured that they will not be losing anything.”

She said the two stations were in a poor state of repair and replacing them with “alternative venues covering the same area” is in the best interests of patients and the crews.

Tony Curry, Fire Brigades Union branch secretary for County Durham and Darlington, said there had been problems with similar schemes in other parts of the country and the union wanted to see an agreed national policy before any more schemes were introduced.