Fears over Covid and increased training requirements see volunteer numbers plummet
Community First Responder groups spanning the length and breath of Wicklow have begun the long and arduous process of recruiting and retraining volunteers after years of inactivity during the pandemic, with many struggling to recruit and some not returning at all.
The recent news that the number of volunteer teams answering emergency heart attack calls in Ireland had dropped from 275 pre-pandemic, to the current 170, demonstrated the devastating effect of Covid. Indeed, those figures reflect the current First Responder landscape in Wicklow, with many groups struggling to get back to their feet, while others have yet to return to action at all.
First responder groups, who are volunteers trained to be first on the scene to a heart-attack call, were stood down by the National Ambulance Service (NAS) in March 2020, in an attempt to halt the spread of Covid. Since restrictions have lifted, many volunteers have not returned, for a variety of personal and practical reasons.
For many groups, their core consisted of older, long-serving members who decided Covid was just a risk too far. Others weren’t keen on wearing personal protective gear (PPE), or going through the process of retraining to the current Cardiac First Responder (CFR) standards. Some may have had children, a change in lifestyle or simply moved outside the proximity of their group’s coverage.
Marc Windsor, Coordinator of the Bray Cardiac First Responders, claimed, “We did lose a number of people when we stood down. Then when restrictions eased, and we returned, there was so many new requirements. We now had to wear full PPE on calls and that undoubtedly put some people off.
“Luckily we have picked up a number of new volunteers over the last few months, which is a huge positive for us.”
Vicky O’Leary, Arklow Community First Responders’ Coordinator, echoed Marc’s sentiments, while also adding that there are always a range of other factors for each individual volunteer to consider.
“For our group? No, I don’t think the drop in numbers was just down to the pandemic,” she said. “We’ve always gone through phases of having a lot of volunteers and then fewer. It’s all swings and roundabouts. We have had some new recruits since the pandemic, but, numbers are most certainly down.”
Enniskerry Community First Responders group is easily among the most resource stretched groups in Wicklow, with its eight volunteers is covering a huge radius encompassing Kilmacanogue, Glencree, Kilternan, Glencullen and parts of Bray. Chairperson, Pat Carey, attributes the continued effectiveness of his group to a strong core of volunteers.
“I’m aware that the numbers have dropped nationally, drastically and we haven’t recruited any new volunteers since the pandemic. But, our group is very strong. That may change soon hopefully. On Wednesday August 10, we’re doing our first training since before pandemic, up in St. Patricks School in Curtlestown. There’s space for 22 at it.”
A common thread weaved throughout the testimonies of all the First Responder Groups is the giant hurdle of CFR certification. Instructors must renew their certification every two years and, with the interruption of the pandemic, their qualifications had expired. The mammoth task of re-certifying those instructors is now key to driving the recruitment machine.
Two first Responder Groups that have not returned to active service following the pandemic are the Roundwood Cardiac First Responders and Aughrim Community First Responders. Their respective Coordinators have recently discussed the importance and scope of the job ahead.
Dearbhla Cronin, of Roundwood Cardiac First Responders, said, “Oh it’s massive. Think of the swathes of land you’re talking about that have no cover right now. It’s imperative that we get these groups operational again. We’re an integral link in the emergency service chain. If your heart stopped in Roundwood today, your nearest first responders might be as far as Bray. That’s a long way let me tell you.”
Phil O’Dwyer, Coordinator of the Aughrim Community First Responders, works for NAS. His group are currently inactive, but maintains that NAS have to do their due diligence so that everyone can have the best training and be as safe as possible.
“It’s true, some people get overwhelmed by the amount of information and training involved, it can seem daunting,” he said. “It takes a rare breed to want to do this. We hope to be back up and running by September, but we’ll need to recruit to really get going.
“For me, the deeper issue is how groups replace the experienced volunteers who retired during Covid – the people who have done it for 5, 10, 15 years. It’s about putting Covid behind us, as much as possible, and revitalising our respective groups with new passionate volunteers.”