Bongani Fuzile and Lulamile Feni
AFTER the provincial Health Department rolled out new ambulances to a number of districts this week, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) paramedics have warned there is also a dire shortage of rescue vehicles in the Eastern Cape.
The problem came to the fore after 10 people died in an accident near Stutterheim at the weekend.
The upset paramedics said they had been unable to help a person trapped in one of the vehicles.
"There was nothing the paramedics on the scene could do," one of them said.
"It was a painful scene, where one person was heard screaming, but when the vehicle was finally cut open [by rescue personnel], the person was dead."
Rescue vehicles, separate from ambulances, play a crucial role in road accidents and other emergency situations.
They include equipment such as the jaws of life, generators, spotlights and ropes which are needed to extract victims from accident wrecks or mountainous areas.
The paramedics, who did not want to be named, said a number of crash victims had died because rescue vehicles did not arrive in time as they were often based far from the areas they served.
"We have a problem where in all districts we depend on municipal fire departments to remove trapped victims," the paramedic said.
"For the Amathole district, there is only one vehicle that works for more than 10 towns, which are almost 200km apart."
Health MEC Sicelo Gqobana handed over 20 ambulances to various districts this week.
The move was welcomed by the paramedics, but they said the shortage of rescue vehicles should also be addressed.
In Amathole District Municipality, a single rescue vehicle based in East London services areas including Stutterheim, Cathcart, Mdantsane, Fort Beaufort, Peddie, Alice, Adelaide, Keiskammahoek, King William's Town, Komgha, Kei Road and even Bedford, which is 190km away.
The Mdantsane and King William's Town vehicles are out of commission.
"We have just one vehicle and sometimes have to travel more than 200km to attend to an accident," another paramedic said.
The shortage of vehicles has a severe impact on paramedics whose areas include the N2, N6, R61 and R63 – some of the most notorious roads in the province.
A senior Transkei paramedic, who also works as a rescuer, said the problem was worst in the rural areas.
"Most cases are happening in rural areas where we find it difficult to save people's lives because of the shortage of equipment."
In the Alfred Nzo district, paramedics complain of inadequate support in the event of an accident in the area.
One rescuer said: "When we ask for a helicopter, we are always told of bad weather or the distance. The only helicopters are based in East London and Port Elizabeth.
"We have two rescue vehicles – one based in Matatiele and one in Mount Ayliff. Bizana has nothing even though this is a vast area."
Two of three rescue vehicles in Joe Gqabi District Municipality were removed in January.
Half of the ambulances in Joe Gqabi and three-quarters in OR Tambo are not operational.
Health Department spokesman Sizwe Kupelo blamed the shortage on reckless driving and abuse of ambulances and rescue vehicles by paramedics.
He said there was a shortage of more than 400 vehicles.
"The 60 vehicles we have just received has pushed our ambulance fleet to over 300. To properly service the province, we need at least 700 vehicles."
Kupelo confirmed that some rescue vehicles had been taken away when the provincial Transport Department changed the service provider.
He said the reason the helicopters were based in East London and Port Elizabeth was due to suitable parking area challenges in other areas.