THE national ambulance service is "running on empty" with tragic consequences in some cases because of a lack of staff and resources, it is claimed.
Michael Dickson, of the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, was speaking in the wake of a growing number of incidents where members of the public endured long delays in waiting for an ambulance.
He said the service was beset by problems, including an ageing fleet, the closure of A&E departments, roster changes and the care of staff who are ill with a psychological or physical injury.
"Northern Ireland, with a population of 1.7 million, has an ambulance service that employs just fewer than 1,200 staff.
"It has a range of just over 300 various vehicles deployed from 57 bases across six counties and an annual budget of £62m (€78m).
"In comparison, Ireland, with a population of 4.6 million, has an ambulance service that employs less than 1,600 staff. It has a range of various vehicles deployed from 87 bases (of which at least 10pc are not 24/7) and an annual budget of €137.4m," he told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children.
"In some of these instances the consequences of delayed response from the ambulance services have been very tragic indeed – and this is something that is deeply regretted by every professional paramedic."
He said that ECHO and Delta calls – which are classed as serious and life-threatening – should be responded to within 7 minutes 59 seconds on 85pc of occasions, in line with best international practice. But these targets are not being reached.
Senior HSE executive Laverne McGuinness told the committee that the ambulance service is getting around 23,000 emergency calls each month.
"During 2013 the national ambulance service experienced a rise of approximately 1,000 emergency calls each month over the year and in December the total number of emergency calls exceeded 25,000.
"Analysis of the overall data indicates that there has been an increase of about 10pc in all emergency calls from January 2013 to December 2013."
She added that responding to emergency calls within the HSE's own target response time was a key objective.
The target set for 2013 was that 70pc of life-threatening cardiac emergencies should be responded to in 18 minutes and 59 seconds or less. National performance for 2013 was 69.5pc, with some regions achieving as high as 79pc.
For those dealing with non-cardiac life-threatening emergencies, the target set in 2013 was that 68pc of incidents should be responded to by a patient carrying vehicle in 18 minutes and 59 seconds or less. National performance for 2013 was 64.1pc with some regions.
She told the committee that substantial investment has taken place in the service over the past two years.