Ambulance staff in Wiltshire, Avon and Gloucestershire are set to be balloted on whether to take industrial action in protest at the employment of lower skilled ambulance staff.

The union Unison, which has more than 650 ambulance members in Wiltshire, Avon and Gloucestershire, is opposed to the Great Western Ambulance Service (GWAS) employing emergency care assistants, who are trained in basic first aid skills but their main role is to assist paramedics.

GWAS aims to staff all ambulances with a paramedic and an emergency care assistant but Unison said the assistant role is not fit for purpose as the assistant does not have the skills to treat patients autonomously.

Ian Whittern, chairman of the GWAS Unison branch, said, said only four out of 14 ambulance services in the UK were employing emergency care assistants.

He said: "We are working towards a point where we can ballot our members for industrial action. There is a national direction that the emergency care assistant role is not fit for purpose.

"There are ten other ambulance trusts not employing emergency care assistants and we do not feel it is right to allow a postcode lottery in other ambulance trusts."

Unison want GWAS to employ either paramedics or technicians, who have a higher range of skills, instead of assistants.

David Whiting, chief executive of GWAS, said news of a ballot by Unison was "disapppinting."

He said currently there were paramedics on 80 per cent of the trust's ambulances.

Dr Ossie Rawstorne, medical director at GWAS, said: "Emergency care assistants have been a valued, important part of the GWAS skill mix for the last three years. Because every vehicle we send to an incident will have a registered paramedic, the assistant is the appropriate support role for those vehicles that have a crew of two."