Page last updated at 13:03 GMT, Thursday, 1 October 2009 14:03 UK

Ambulance crews faced sat-nav blunders

Matt Precey
BBC News

Satnav system
The Trust has completed a revamp of its technical infrastructure

Documents obtained by the BBC have revealed how satellite navigation equipment on board ambulances have caused delays in life-threatening situations.

In the past seven years, there have been incidents in which ambulance crews from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire have experienced problems with their sat-nav gear while responding to emergency calls.

An incident log from the East of England Ambulance Service (EEAS) shows historic problems where difficulties with the kit caused delays in responding to a range of call-outs, including to a 10-week-old child in cardiac arrest, a baby reportedly "turning blue" and a toddler with breathing difficulties.

The log, dating back to 2002, described how crews had repeatedly been sent to addresses in foreign countries, under bridges that were too low, down farm tracks and dead ends.

One crew called to an area in Essex was forced to dial 999 to find out where they were going after their sat-nav failed and they could not contact the control room.

'Missing maps'

The number of notifications about sat-nav systems misdirecting drivers appears to have tailed off in 2009, and the volume of reported incidents involving this kit is still very low when compared to the number of emergencies the Trust responds to.

The log showed how crews have been raising concerns over sat-nav problems for a number of years.

In 2003, one said: "I realise now that the system is causing major problems sending crews to wrong locations continually... please can somebody fix it before somebody suffers?"

Another complaint about notifications of faulty sat-nav kit not being acted on states that on some ambulances the "majority of the road maps have either pages missing or are stuck together".

However, as recently as September 2008 crews were complaining about faults not being investigated or followed up.

One staff member said he had "raised these complaints on so many occasions that I now feel I have exhausted all reasonable attempts to get the Trust to take these matters seriously".

The Trust's Adverse Incident Reporting System also notes around 20 separate occasions where sat-nav equipment had been stolen from ambulances while crews were attending patients. The cost of these thefts has been put at approximately £20,000.

South east of Paris

These documents were obtained following a Freedom of Information Act request.

The EEAS said "many of the incidents in our response were reported pre the July 2006 merger of the three former Trusts that make up the East of England Ambulance Service".

It said: "Sat-navs are intended as an aid to crews and are particularly useful to people who are operating in an unfamiliar area and also in dealing with inter-hospital transfers outside of our area.

"However, the vast majority of responses are carried out by crews who know the local road network and are fully aware of any significant access issues."

Extracts from the log include:

• A call out in September 2008 to a "baby going blue" was delayed as the driver programmed the address into the sat-nav "only to find that it would not operate again"

• Responding to a 10-week-old baby going into cardiac arrest in July 2005, the sat-nav failed. "Due to this we felt if affected our response time greatly"

• An ambulance responding to a woman with breathing difficulties in September 2003 took 16 minutes to reach her instead of three when the sat-nav took them to the wrong location

• On three separate occasions, the sat-nav system directed separate Suffolk crews to locations in The Netherlands. Another crew was directed to an area "south east of Paris".

The BBC has also learned that the East of England Ambulance Trust has recently completed a major revamp of its technical infrastructure, bringing together the operating systems of the three former Trusts which make up the current service.

The EEAS is also about to implement a new pan-regional computer aided dispatch system to send its fleet of ambulances on 999 calls, using a single upgraded sat-nav system.

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