Patient dies after 999 call is delayed by fault

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AN investigation has been launched into the death of a man after the ambulance sent to help him was delayed – because of a fault connecting the crucial 999 call.

Ambulance bosses said they had taken longer than usual to reach the man, who had collapsed in agony at a Homebase store, because BT failed to connect the call to Edinburgh’s ambulance control room – a process which usually only takes a few seconds.

On the same day there was a major technical failure in two of Scotland’s three ambulance control rooms, meaning staff had to take all 999 calls on an emergency back-up system for nearly three hours – with some Edinburgh calls being diverted to Cardonald.

It is not known if the two issues are linked, but BT today apologised and said it had launched a full investigation into the widespread technical failures at the call centres and the specific incident in Hawick, where the ambulance was delayed by five minutes because of the failure to connect the call and took 17 minutes to arrive.

Ambulance insiders said that the death was “another shocking example of the service failing the public” and pointed out that technical failures in the Edinburgh control room had forced workers to resort to the back-up system six times in the past year.

The source said: “I can’t believe this has happened. After all the problems that have been reported, the service has failed the patient again. It’s about time management stood up and were accountable for these shocking failings. This delay might have cost a man his life.

“The SAS has had to use the back-up system around six times since last year and, because there are fewer lines, they can’t deal with half as many calls. The analogue lines also do not prioritise the most serious jobs. Both of these points could lead to crucial delays. Normally it is BT’s fault, but this begs the question: can the SAS cope with all three centres going through the same exchange? There needs to be an urgent inquiry.”

Today the Scottish Government said there would be an urgent review of this case. A spokeswoman said: “We are aware that there was a delay in responding to a cardiac patient in Hawick, the ambulance service is conducting an urgent review of this case and ministers will carefully consider the findings.”

Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie today called on Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon to make a statement about the errors. She said: “Here we have a system that deals with emergency situations failing time after time. Now we have evidence that as a consequence of an error in the phone system, there has been at least one fatality and I would urge the Cabinet Secretary to hold a fatal accident inquiry to find out exactly what went on.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Ambulance Service acknowledged the technical difficulties and the tragic incident.

He said: “At 9.45 on September 6 the Emergency Medical Dispatch Centres in Edinburgh and Inverness experienced technical difficulties to the 999 telephony system and immediately switched to the contingency back-up system so that all calls continued to be dealt with quickly by the centres. The technical fault was rectified by 12.30. A review is ongoing to identify the specific cause of the problem.

“A response to a cardiac patient in Hawick took 12 minutes from receipt of the call. However, there was a five- minute delay in BT transferring the call to us. A nurse on scene provided early CPR, which was continued by ambulance crews, but unfortunately the patient did not survive. We are conducting review of this case and have asked BT to investigate why there was a delay in the initial transfer of the call.”

A BT spokesman called the failure “concerning” and claimed that the fault led to a four-minute delay, rather than five minutes.

He said: “We were very concerned and saddened to learn about this incident. A detailed investigation is under way to establish the full facts.”

In August 2010, the SAS faced controversy when the telephone lines at all three Scottish control centres failed, leading all calls to be diverted to Belfast and the north of England.