A new campaign has been launched by ambulance chiefs, urging people to think before dialling 999.
The plea is being made by North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) following an unprecedented period of severe pressure lasting 19 weeks.
It has seen the service's response to potentially life-threatening incidents fall below the national standard of eight minutes or faster to 75% of calls.
Mark Cotton, assistant director of communications at NEAS, said: “We know the majority of callers don’t abuse our service and we don’t want to deter anybody who needs emergency help.
"However, this is targeted at those people who call us and expect us to send an ambulance when there are other alternatives.
“The aim is to make people think about whether they really need an ambulance before they dial 999.
"Breathing difficulties, chest pains or unconsciousness all need a fast response, but there are alternatives when it’s not life-threatening and less urgent than 999.”
The campaign features three hard-hitting messages aimed at making people stop and think before dialling 999 for an emergency ambulance. These are:
* You wouldn’t call the fire service to blow out a candle;
* You wouldn’t call the coastguard if you fell in a puddle; and
* We risk our lives to save yours.
Accompanying all three messages is a reminder to call 111 when an incident is less urgent than 999.
The 111 number is a Freephone number that is staffed 24 hour a day, seven days a week.
The last message also features 29-year-old Durham city centre rapid response paramedic Sarah Ulph.
She said: “One of the hardest parts of this job is attending to a patient who needs an ambulance, but they have had to wait for hours because there hasn’t been an ambulance available for them.
"Sometimes this is because a crew are with a patient who either didn’t need to go to hospital or who could have made their own way there.
“I think it’s important for us to try and educate the public that our ambulances are emergency vehicles and that there are other ways of accessing help without calling 999.
"I go to a lot of calls for people that don’t necessarily need an ambulance but who called 999 because they didn’t know who to call.
"I think publicising the 111 number on the side of an ambulance, alongside these messages, will help do that.”
As well as 111, members of the public are asked to try and use alternative services, such as their local GP, pharmacist or walk-in centre where possible.
Advice on health conditions, as well as where to access help, is also available via www.nhs.uk