WILTSHIRE'S rural ambulance crews could soon become a thing of the past and 999 calls across the region could be answered by a volunteer first responder, according to public sector union UNISON.

These claims were made after the Great Western Ambulance Service (GWAS) announced last week it plans to extend the volunteer responder scheme across the whole of Wiltshire.

This scheme has been in operation in a number of rural locations across Wiltshire, Avon, and Somerset for the last four years, and involves a volunteer being fully trained in resuscitation techniques and provided with a defibrillator and oxygen tank.

The intention is for the volunteer to answer any emergency call in their local area and provide basic emergency care until an ambulance can arrive.

But while acknowledging the good work done by volunteer responders, UNISON bosses claim the extension of the scheme into towns and cities is an attempt by GWAS to hit government targets, and could see volunteers placed into situations which require the fully-trained expertise of professional paramedics.

Ian Whittern, chairman of UNISON's ambulance branch, said: "While we agree with GWAS the volunteer responders play a vital life-saving role in these very isolated rural locations, we are concerned the extensions of this scheme will see volunteer responders answering all 999 calls.

"Quite frankly, it makes a mockery of the 999 system if somebody calls with an emergency and the only response they get is a partially-trained volunteer.

"If someone called for a fire engine they wouldn't want to see a volunteer with a ladder and a fire extinguisher turn up, but this is what we are asking people to accept with our ambulance service.

"We would prefer to see the ambulance service receive more funding so it could meet its targets without having to resort to recruiting an army of half-trained volunteers to do the work of medical professionals.

"Schemes like this are only a temporary solution which will ultimately put lives at risk."