Hongkongers will be asked to give their views this year on a new ambulance response system that ranks calls by degrees of emergency, so that the more serious medical cases receive the fastest attention.
A recently concluded consultancy report proposes that calls for an ambulance be sorted into five categories, each with a different response-time target ranging from nine to 30 minutes.
The target now for all calls is 12 minutes.
Gregory Lo Chun-hung, director of the Fire Services Department, said the department and the Security Bureau would consult the public this year on the proposals.
The report suggests asking callers to emergency services four to five questions to determine the condition of the patient, such as whether he or she is conscious, breathing well or bleeding, and the state of his or her heartbeat, chief ambulance officer Ken Mak Kwa-pui said.
Operators at the fire services communication centre would then grade the cases into five tiers of emergency: life-threatening, serious but not life-threatening, serious, urgent, and non-urgent.
Mr Lo said questions would be designed in such a way that they could be answered by callers with no first-aid knowledge.
No decision on the system had been made yet, he said, and the public would be asked if they felt there should be more or fewer categories and different response times.
Officers would need to be trained in the new response system, Mr Lo said.
The number of ambulance calls received last year rose 5.2 per cent from 611,707 to 643,611, an average of 1,763 calls a day.
'The increase in ambulance calls last year was partly due to the long cold spell in February,' Mr Lo said at a year-end briefing yesterday.
'We had a record 2,200 calls for ambulances in a single day.'
Only 92.2 per cent of the callers received attention within the target of 12 minutes, falling short of the 92.5 per cent benchmark set by the department. Mr Lo blamed the higher number of calls and the number of breakdowns in the department's ageing fleet of ambulances.
New ambulances will be put into service from this month - the first 100 this year and another 96 in 2010 - so that 80 per cent of the 250 ambulances in the department will be less than two years old.
The number of false-alarm calls last year rose 16 per cent, to 24,007.
The number of reports of people trapped in lifts rose 17 per cent, to 7,237. Mr Lo attributed this to a spate of thunderstorms in June and July that triggered the sensitive lift-safety systems.
The number of callers reporting fires rose 12 per cent, to 35,513, and the number of serious fires rose from eight in 2007 to 18 last year.
After the deaths in August of two firemen and two other people in a fire in Cornwall Court, Mong Kok, the department has reviewed its equipment and will seek HK$100 million to install a digital radio system to replace its analogue one.
One of the firemen who tackled the blaze said the radio frequency crews were using became jammed. The firemen's staff association said their radios did not work in tunnels or basements.
The department will also change all 1,500 sets of breathing apparatus for firemen's face masks from March.
The face masks will have a display panel indicating oxygen level. The oxygen tanks firemen use last 45 minutes. The only indication firemen get of the oxygen left is a beep which sounds when supply is down to 10 minutes. Firemen battling dense smoke to rescue the men who died in Cornwall Court heard the beep when they were barely halfway to the 15th floor where the men were.