‘Community First Responders (CFRs) are a tremendous bunch of people,” says Ger O’Dea, the National Ambulance Service’s Community Engagement Manager.
“I’ve met many CFRs and they are second to none. They are there for the right reason. Helping the patient and the ambulance service is their primary goal.”
Speed is of the essence when the 999 call comes, particularly if a cardiac arrest has occurred.
“The most important thing to have done in that situation is to have very early, good quality cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and the use of an AED (Automated External Defibrillator). That’s what our First Responders can bring to the scene while they await the emergency ambulance or helicopter or whatever is coming.”
Ger knows the value of this support, having been a paramedic for 18 years.
“It makes a huge difference because when we arrive on the scene and no one has been doing CPR and it’s been 15 or 20 minutes since the event happened, the chances of that patient surviving are extremely minimal,” he says.
“When someone is in cardiac arrest and CPR isn’t done, their chances of survival drops between 7 – 10% every minute, so you need to be getting straight onto that chest and doing CPR until help arrives.”
We need more
There are currently 250 Community First Responder schemes around the country with a total of 3000 people involved, but the National Ambulance Service is looking for more volunteers - particularly in rural areas.
“We always want more, particularly in rural Ireland as it’s where they are needed most,” Ger says. “The need for help in rural Ireland is why the scheme was set up in the first place. Obviously the ambulance service will always despatch the nearest, most appropriate resource to the sickest of people, but given the geography of Ireland it can take time to get to the patient’s location. Having CFRs getting there ahead of the ambulance can make a significant difference.
“We can have ambulances, motorbikes and helicopters and all of those technological things in the ambulance service but we need the person on the ground who is closest to the patient,” he adds.
Ger also points out how reassuring this can be for farming families.
“Many farms are remote, so if a CFR scheme is set up in a locality, the person who’s ill [and their family] knows somebody with training is going to come quickly. That’s the bottom line of it. It’s what we call communities saving lives. More and more people are starting to volunteer, because they can see the difference that it can make. Do please get in touch if you would like to set up a Community First Responder scheme in your area.”
ONE READER’S STORY: Mike Flahive
Being a First Responder isn’t beef farmer and Kerry cattle breeder Mike Flahive’s first involvement with volunteerism.
For him, helping out in his community started in his 30s. Now 71, he has been a member of Kerry Underwater Search team and went on to set up, along with others, the Ballybunion Sea and Cliff Rescue service 37 years ago. Since 2014 he has also been a Community First Responder and is now an area co-ordinator.
But how did the First Responders group start?
“Community First Responder groups were being sought by the National Ambulance Service,” he says, “and we were interested as, knowing of a few incidents in the area, we felt there was a need of it. Some of us had first aid skills already from volunteering with other organisations so we investigated how to go about it.”
A community meeting was called and fundraising to buy two defibrillators then followed.
“Training came after that and we got going after we were accepted onto the CFR scheme by the National Ambulance Service,” Mike says. “For any groups starting out, there is actually a lot of help out there with funding, including from county council community schemes.”
The Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) were then placed in fixed locations on the outside of houses in the Beale area rather than on public buildings.
“Our area is totally rural, you see, we have no village as such,” Mike says. “The only public building we have is a national school.”
Mike explains his work as co-ordinator.“I have a simple phone, just for responding. If someone phones 999 for any of five types of emergencies - like cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest, chest pain, stroke or choking - an ambulance is despatched. I immediately get a text with the relevant information. It includes an incident code, age, gender and location. I have an alarm attached to the text message so no matter if it’s day or night I’ll hear it.”
Mike then answers using a single letter response to say the group will respond then immediately contacts the volunteers.
“We have about 19 responders at the moment. They text me back a simple one-letter reply -A- when they are in their car so I know who’s on the way and how long it will take them to get to the patient’s house.”
As soon as several arrive, Mike relays the information via code to the ambulance service confirming that they are in attendance. He also provides an update on the patient’s condition.
“I would also get an update on the Expected Time of Arrival (ETA) for the ambulance so we know what we’re dealing with,” he says.
Mike and his team, who work closely with the CFR group in neighbouring parish Astee, get one to two call-outs each week, he says.
“Our radius would be 10km but we would cover Ballybunion as well, at present.”
Mike considers every call-out a success regardless of the amount of assistance they give.
“When you go into a house, you see how appreciative people are,” he says.
“Us being there takes the pressure off. We do the best we can and reassure people. There’s a good few things to get ready too. We’d get their medicines or medical reports together and see that a bag is ready for hospital. In some cases, when you go into a bedroom, you have to shift stuff to make room for the paramedics coming in.”
While the introduction of Eircodes has helped their service greatly, it can also lead you astray occasionally, he adds. The CFR team, therefore, usually assign someone to traffic duty to make sure the ambulance gets there with ease.
“It would be just a simple thing, on our country and twisty roads, of putting a marker or a person out at a crossroads or a turn down to direct the ambulance where to go,” he says.
The majority of call-outs relate to chest pain.
“It can vary from mild to serious where a cardiac incident has already happened and they are in serious trouble. We would be called out to people who have had strokes, but very few incidences of choking.”
Mike is a beef farmer who also has a small herd of Kerry cattle.
“It’s to keep the breed going,” he says. “We’d only sell any surplus animals to other Kerry farmers interested in setting up a Kerry herd.”
Many of the First Responders are farmers or from a farming background.
“Because of farming, I can drop things and go within minutes when I need to and many others in the group can do that too, for the same reason.”
But why does Mike, and his team do this voluntary work?
“Well, we’re out in the country, very rural and we are all our own neighbours, as the man says. Since we started in 2014 we realised how important the service is to people.”
But, Irish Country Living asks, why does he want to do it? Did he have an example from his parents?
“My parents were just ordinary farmers when I was growing up in 50s and 60s. There was no mention of volunteering in those days, it hadn’t been invented then, but you always helped your neighbours with hay and turf and so on so there was a tradition of helping one another.”
Mike thinks that everyone would want to be a First Responder.
“If you’re walking down the street and you see someone fall, your natural reaction is to help them up. That’s the way I look at it anyway. I’m surprised more people don’t get involved. They may be afraid of doing that but there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
The correct terms is an AED or Automated External Defibrillator. It is a portable, computerised device used when someone suffers a sudden cardiac arrest. It delivers a shock to the heart in order to help it resume its normal rhythm. A cardiac arrest means that something has gone wrong with the heart’s electrical system, causing it to beat abnormally.
See the dedicated website becomeacfr.ie for more information, as well as nationalambulanceservice.ie/community/community-first-responders/. Four to six people can start a group in an area
Training is provided and assistance given with the paperwork involved.