HEALTH chiefs had to pull 167 modern ambulances off the roads after four of them inexplicably caught fire. The EUR22million specialist Mercedes Sprinter fleet was recalled for safety inspections.
In the most serious incident an ambulance caught fire while carrying a patient at the K Club in Co Kildare last Christmas. The first blaze happened in Portlaoise, Co Laois, at the start of 2008. Another burst into flames at Tullyesker, outside Drogheda, Co Louth, in January.
It has now emerged there have been similar incidents in Wales in August last year. But no action was taken by the HSE until the incidents took place here. Despite the accidents all of the vehicles are still being used for emergency call-outs. But the HSE has insisted if the fault is found to be commonplace all the vehicles will have to be scrapped. If that happens the taxpayer will be hit with the further cost of subcontracting emergency transport cover.
A HSE national ambulance service spokesman would not confirm the exact cause of the faults but said that investigations were still ongoing. He added: "The causes of incidents have not yet been proven." The vehicles make up just over a third of 480 ambulances in Ireland and were a part of a major upgrade of existing emergency call-out services.
Labour health spokeswoman Jan O'Sullivan said the cost showed lack of financial sense within the HSE. Ms O'Sullivan added: "It's hard to believe this country gave out that kind of money without guarantees on the ambulances. "If there is any risk of a fault they should be automatically replaced."