A DUBLIN ambulance broke down several times while rushing a pregnant woman to hospital in what has been described as just one symptom of a funding crisis at the service.

Sources at Dublin Fire Brigade, which runs most of the city's ambulances, claim crews are being increasingly forced to use old back-up vehicles due to cutbacks in overtime expenditure on maintenance.

Paramedics have also claimed the Health Service Executive wants to reduce substantially the number of ambulances in the Dublin area by the beginning of next year.

"We are going down to eight ambulances [from 12] from next year; they only want to pay for eight," a fire brigade source said. "I will put it this way: the service is so stretched that a fire engine is now turning up [to medical emergencies] while they are waiting for an ambulance."

The HSE said there had been no such funding cutbacks to date but stopped short of ruling out anything in the future.

Staff claim there are continuing incidents of poor service due to funding constraints and that patients' lives are being put at risk.

"One night there was a pregnant woman in a spare ambulance. They were bringing her to Holles Street and it kept breaking down on the way to the hospital," the source said. "They stopped about five or six times; the driver was going mad about it. He said they only just managed to get her there on time."

Recently, an ambulance supposed to respond to a cardiac arrest in north Dublin was delayed due to queues dropping off patients at a city hospital. As a result, an ambulance was sent from Swords. By the time it had reached the patient she was dead but fortunately trained paramedics on a fire engine were able to resuscitate her.

The fire crews, who have been continually praised for their service in emergencies, say their efforts are being undermined by cutbacks to maintenance budgets.

"Maintenance staff now only work from 9am to 10pm. If we break down we go up and get a spare ambulance and we get back out on the road," the source said. "But after 10pm we can't get a spare because they are all being used because they are all breaking down."