AMBULANCE bosses have declared a state of “red alert” for the first time, blaming overcrowded wards and frivolous 999 calls.

In a bid to get more paramedics on the road, non-essential training sessions and meetings have been cancelled.

All clinically-trained staff, even if they have progressed to senior management, could find themselves back out on the front line.

And St John Ambulance volunteers will also be used to attend some of the less serious callouts.

Red alert is the fourth of five stages in the ambulance service escalation procedure. Stage five is “black alert”, defined as “potential service failure”, with the service refusing to attend the least serious calls and trainee paramedics attending calls alone.

The move comes after East Lancashire’s A&E department at the Royal Blackburn Hospital continues to battle unprecedented patient numbers, which has seen ambulances left queueing outside and even forced the unit to be closed to new patients.

Critics who believe the closure of Burnley’s A&E in November 2007 is to blame said the problems underlined their case for a public inquiry into that decision.

But the North West Ambulance Service stressed that the state of red alert applied to the whole region and not just East Lancashire. They said that A&E units across the country were experiencing high demand.

And paramedics pointed to the increasing numbers of unnecessary 999 calls which were taking up valuable resources.

Matt Whitticombe, of the Association of Professional Ambulance Personnel (APAP) union, said: “We have people who really do see ambulances as just a convenient way of getting to the hospital.

“I have attended a call from someone who caught their skin while cutting their toenail. It had stopped bleeding by the time we got there.

“I had another one from an adult who had fallen off their pushbike and grazed their knee. When we arrived, the patient was running down the path, saying ‘Oh, hello - are you for me?’ “That is not acceptable at any time.”

Mr Whitticombe described North West hospitals as ‘full to bursting’.

He added: “If we can’t get the new patient into the A&E department, that means we are looking after them on a stretcher in a corridor for up to two hours, and there can easily be 15 ambulances parked up, waiting for the paramedic to be free again.”

NWAS chief executive John Burnside said trusts in the Midlands and South West also being forced to declare red alert.

He said: “The outcome of the declaration is to focus all non-critical resources on maintaining a safe level of emergency service to the public of the North West and to ensure that we are able to assist vulnerable patients most in need of an ambulance response.

“We are working closely with our NHS partners to look carefully at all the reasons for this increase and to ensure that the local health economy works as effectively as possible for patients at this time.”

NWAS chiefs said the extra pressure was down to unprecedented numbers of legitimate calls, as well as more inappropriate calls, and hospital wards already packed with patients. They blamed the extra illness on the ageing population and extremely cold weather over the already-busy winter period.

But campaigners for the return of full A and E facilities to Burnley General Hospital said the situation would not change unless its emergency department was reinstated.

Burnley Council leader Gordon Birtwistle said: "Royal Blackburn Hospital is overflowing with patients. We've seen Blackburn's A&E suspended due to complete breakdown of the service. Even when it's working, it takes too long to see patients.

“There must be an independent inquiry into the state of East Lancashire's hospitals. ”