Firefighters are to start working as paramedics in parts of Sussex.

From today people who suffer serious illness such as heart attacks could find themselves being treated by firemen rather than NHS paramedics as part of a scheme designed to save more lives.

Emergency services chiefs say the initiative will save lives by getting aid to those in need faster.

And both East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service and South East Coast Ambulance Service deny it is a cost-cutting exercise or a reaction to a lack of paramedics in the region.

Specially trained firefighters in East Sussex have volunteered to become responders as part of the scheme because South East Coast Ambulance Service say fire crews can often get to emergencies in rural areas quicker then paramedics.

An NHS spokesman said: "The scheme is particularly important in rural areas, where, in many cases, East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service can reach emergency incidents and administer immediate life-saving treatment whilst waiting for paramedics or ambulances to arrive.

"A paramedic will always support co-responders as soon as they get to the scene."

The scheme is being introduced in Rye but will spread across the rest of the county later this year.

If successful the scheme could also be adopted in West Sussex. Responder schemes involving ordinary people are already operating across the county.

In each case specially trained volunteers, who live and work in local communities, are alerted to emergencies via a pager system and are often able to respond to emergencies, particularly heart attacks, before paramedics.

Those behind the scheme deny it will take firefighters away from their normal duties.

East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service Head of Operations Andy Reynolds said: "The fire crews involved in the responding scheme have volunteered to do so in addition to their existing roles as firefighters.

"People with symptoms of a heart attack should receive help from an individual who is equipped and properly trained in the use of a defibrillator within eight minutes of calling for help, to maximise the benefits of resuscitation should that be necessary.

"This is a natural extension to our existing role of protecting the communities of East Sussex and Brighton and Hove."

A fire and rescue service spokesman said: "This is not being done to save money or an attempt to shed jobs. It is purely an attempt to save more lives."

Joe Marshall, South East Coast Ambulance Service's responder network lead, said: "We are very excited about this new scheme.

"The close links forged through working between ourselves and the fire service in this way highlights how even better emergency treatment can be delivered to patients in the best possible time.

"Working together we can deliver the best possible patient care to the people."

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