The number 999 is one we hope we will never have to dial. Calls for emergency services are, by their nature, likely to be made by people under stress or possibly in a panic. The priority for those receiving the calls should be to ensure that the quickest possible help is provided. A proposal to require callers asking for an ambulance to first answer a number of basic questions is therefore one which must be approached with caution. Security officials have suggested switchboard operators ask the questions in order to work out the severity of the medical condition concerned. They might ask about a patient's heartbeat, breathing rate, or blood loss, before sending an ambulance. This would enable calls to be graded and, it is hoped, allow priority for the more urgent cases. The objective is worth pursuing. About 40 per cent of more than half a million emergency calls for ambulances last year were unnecessary. This needlessly places a big burden on a service that is already stretched and struggling to meet its 12-minute response time. Lives can be put at risk if ambulance workers are busy attending to relatively minor medical complaints and are therefore unable to swiftly respond to serious cases. But the question-and-answer proposal must be handled with the greatest care. It does not take a medical expert to realise that people who make 999 calls are not likely to be in the right state of mind to answer even simple questions. There is a danger that this will lead to unnecessary delays. Even worse, it could result in misleading information given or errors of judgment made so far as the severity of the medical condition is concerned. Mistakes could have very serious consequences. Certainly, the judgment should not be left to switchboard operators with no medical training. There is also a need to err on the side of caution in order to avoid underestimating the urgency of a particular situation. It's better to provide quick help when it is not necessary than to fail to provide a rapid response when it is. Other options should also be explored. There is a proposal to introduce a user-pays principle for the use of ambulances. This must also be very carefully considered otherwise it could deter people from seeking urgent help when they really need it. But there is no reason why those who flagrantly abuse the system should not be charged. A review of the way in which resources within the Fire Services Department are distributed is also needed. Ambulance Command, which is facing an increased workload, currently receives less than a third of the annual budget. Members of the public have a responsibility to ensure they only dial 999 when really necessary. But when they do, the emergency services should be prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and respond as quickly as possible.