THE state of the Welsh ambulance service was laid bare last night as it emerged that paramedics are buying their own sat-nav equipment for ambulances.
Only a handful of ambulances have some form of satellite navigation system fitted, paid for by the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust.
In many cases staff have bought their own basic systems, which cost from £200 on the high street.
The revelation comes amid growing concern about the service's ability to cope with current high demand from the public and future expectations.
The service is struggling to hit its targets for responding to 999 emergency calls and needs an estimated £35m of investment in staff, vehicles and communications equipment, including advance satellite navigation.
The crisis in the service was brought to a head last month when Roger Thayne, its interim chief executive, stepped down after just two months in post.
Mr Thayne later told a television programme that the failings in the ambulance service were costing 500 people their lives every year.
Mr Thayne appeared in court yesterday charged with driving without due care and attention and failing to report an accident after being involved in a crash with a 4x4 while responding to a 999 call in Hartshill, Staffordshire. A trial is due in September.
Health Minister Dr Brian Gibbons yesterday admitted that Mr Thayne's departure had been an "embarrassment" and put the Assembly Government in a "difficult situation".
And he said the Healthcare Inspectorate Wales would investigate the 500 deaths claim, although he said Mr Thayne, who volunteered himself to become the service's interim chief executive, had never raised that point with him.
Despite the ambulance service facing £10m of budget pressures this year - due partly to the new Agenda for Change pay awards - Dr Gibbons said investment must be made.
Ann Lloyd, chief executive of the NHS in Wales, will meet senior ambulance trust executives today to determine what capital funding the service needs.
Dr Gibbons said, "If performance is going to improve them capital investment is needed in the ambulance service in terms of the buildings it operates from.
"Vehicle stocks need to be upgraded - too many are branded towards patient transport rather than rapid response.
"Telemedicine needs to be upgraded and sat-nav needs to be put on ambulances."
Work is also urgently needed to prevent ambulances from becoming stuck at A&E departments, waiting to offload patients.
The ideal turn-around time for an ambulance is 15 minutes, but the current average time is 24 minutes.
Dr Gibbons has suggested that when queues emerge, one or two paramedics are stationed at casualty departments to look after a build up in the number of patients waiting to be admitted, to free up the other ambulances.
A spokeswoman for the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust last night said that only a small group of special vehicles, which respond to major incidents throughout the UK, were equipped with satellite navigation systems.
And she confirmed that, in some cases, ambulance staff have bought their own high street systems to use while they are on call.
She added, "We are currently working on the detail of a modernisation strategy that will result in real benefits for patients and staff.
"However those plans will require significant investment.
"Anton Van Dellen, interim chief executive, has emphasised that the staff in Wales are among the best trained in the UK.
"The changes needed to modernise the service are centred on infrastructure such as buildings, medical equipment and technology.
"The Welsh Ambulance Trust as a whole is urgently looking to upgrade our emergency service by investing in new communications equipment, including satellite navigation technology, for our vehicles."
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