VOLUNTEERS who answer more than one in 10 medical emergencies in parts of Oxfordshire free-of-charge believe they are being relied on too heavily by ambulance bosses.

South Central Ambulance Service recruits unpaid community responders to be on call to respond to 999 calls in places where they can get to incidents faster than ambulance crews.

The service said they had never been seen as a “substitute” for trained paramedics.

The volunteers are not paid mileage costs for attending emergencies, leading some community responders to say they have become a cheap way of providing cover in rural areas.

In Vale of White Horse, community responders last month answered 11.6 per cent of all 999 calls, and were first to the scene of 10.8 per cent of emergencies in West Oxfordshire.

One volunteer, who asked not to be named, said they had become “cannon fodder” for the ambulance service.

He said: “On occasions, we do save lives and get there fast enough to provide a good emergency service, but I don’t think it’s right that the ambulance service should rely so heavily on what are essentially second class people like me to do it.

“The programme is a proven life saver and is certainly better than nothing, but in its present form it is a real temptation for SCAS to remove ambulance cover from an area knowing there are community first responders who can reach the patient within eight minutes.

“To be fair, they are under a huge amount of pressure, especially at weekends when about 40 per cent of calls are drink-related and the system really does creak.

“But the ambulance service has established a culture where we carry out our service for free and, given the present climate of cut-backs, they must be sorely tempted to extend it.”

First responders warned volunteers were being put off because they were not given fuel expenses for attending emergencies, despite rising petrol prices.

Many have to raise money for their own emergency kits and defibrilators.

Another first responder, who also asked not to be named, said: “It is galling, particularly with the price of petrol now.

“A lot of us would not want to take expenses if we were offered, but do not have that choice.”

South Central Ambulance spokesman James Keating-Wilkes said: “Community responders have never been viewed or seen as a substitute for qualified ambulance clinicians.

“This is because their scope of practice is in no way comparable to that of qualified colleagues and their dispatch is limited to Category A (the most serious) incidents.

“The deployment of ambulance resources is carried out on a dynamic basis based on demand and the amount of resources available at any one time.”

Mr Keating-Wilkes said ambulances were sent to all incidents, but community responders could sometimes get there quicker.

It had “never been a secret” that community responders received no expenses for attending emergencies, he added.

But Peter Handley, who chairs West Oxfordshire District Council’s scrutiny committee that has declared it has no confidence in the service, said: “This is an ambulance service on the cheap.

“They’re not only going out once a week on a job, but sometimes two or three times on one evening.”