The government has decided to delay until at least 2014 a new dispatch system designed to ensure ambulances are sent to the most urgent cases first.
A plan to roll out the Medical Priority Dispatch System in three stages starting next year was unveiled yesterday in a paper submitted to the Legislative Council's security panel.
But the government said it would make a final decision tentatively by 2014 on whether the core of the controversial system - prioritising ambulance calls - would be implemented.
The Fire Services Department has spent almost a decade studying the system as a way of dealing with the rapid increase in ambulance calls, some of which, it said, were unwarranted and amounted to an abuse of the service.
But the staff union and patients' rights groups have opposed the proposed system, fearing that it could lower the level of service.
The department projected last year that the new system could be in place by 2012. In January this year, fire chief Gregory Lo Chun-hung said it could be implemented in 2013.
The Security Bureau said yesterday the decision to delay the tentative implementation date was to 'address public concerns'.
Under the system, emergency calls would be divided into three categories: '1' for critical or life-threatening cases; '2' for serious but non-life-threatening cases; and '3' for non-acute cases.
The targets would be for an ambulance to arrive within nine, 12, and 20 minutes, respectively.
A dispatch operator would ask clear, structured questions about a patient's condition and then assign the case to one of the three tiers.
The plan unveiled yesterday proposed that from next year operators would offer simple first-aid advice for easily identified injuries such as burns, bleeding and bone fractures before the ambulance crews arrived.
Until a full protocol for questioning the patient was in place by 2013, ambulances would continue to be dispatched with a target response time of 12 minutes, which would be met 92.5 per cent of the time.
A senior ambulance officer with detailed knowledge of the plan said there was no rush to implement it, as it would take time for the public to understand the new system.
'Our direction is clear, but we do not want to create confusion,' he said, adding that a trial run might take place before 2014 in selected districts.
Christine Loh Kung-wai, chief executive of the Civic Exchange think-tank, said she believed that the plan was delayed to obtain maximum public support for the system.
Wat Ki-on, vice-chairman of the Fire Services Department Ambulancemen's Union, urged the department to reconsider the proposal, as he feared that the new 20-minute target might jeopardise patients' safety.
'Not every patient can tell precisely [his or her] condition over the phone, not to mention that the operators are not qualified paramedics,' he said.
Tim Pang Hung-cheong of the Patients' Rights Association said he was surprised that the government had backtracked from its schedule but agreed it might take a longer time for the public to be educated about the proposed system.
According to the department's figures, 617,265 emergency ambulance calls were received last year, an 8 per cent increase from the 573,657 in 2007.
Taking their time
Phased implementation of medical priority dispatch system
Starts early next year
? Provide simple first aid advice to callers with easily identifiable injuries such as burns and cuts while they wait for an ambulance
? The existing 12-minute response target for ambulances will be maintained
2013 at the earliest
? Callers will be asked a series of questions to ascertain the patients? conditions to allow the operators to provide specific first-aid advice. The information will also be given to the ambulance crew en route
? The 12-minute response target will be maintained
? Fire officials will consider a full switch to a three-tier dispatch system under which responses to calls would be prioritised in accordance with their urgency
? Target response times would range from 9 to 20 minutes
SOURCE: FIRE SERVICES DEPARTMENT