My local newspaper The Croydon Advertiser ran a short story this week on the number of violent attacks on ambulance staff in the Croydon area. These figures will come as no surprise to my colleagues elsewhere in the capital either who seem to be facing an increase in incidents of threatened and actual assault while simply going about the course of their duties. The figures quoted in the article are 22 assaults on ambulance staff in Croydon in the year April 2008 to March 2009. I would argue that this figure is the tip of a much larger iceberg.
The reason I say tip of the iceberg is this – Ambulance crews work as part of the busiest emergency service. No sooner do we finish one call-out than we are on to the next.
Obviously assaults that result in injury mean that we are removed from duty to allow for treatment and completion of an incident reporting form. The first opportunity we may get to report many of the less serious incidents however may not come until the end of our 12 hour shift when we are already tired, hungry, fed up and off late. By then we would rather be on our way home than sitting on the ambulance station filling out another incident report form. In fact, sadly, you actually just get used to it; and when you get used to something you start to tolerate it and accept it as normal. The behaviour of these individuals is no longer challenged because it has become the cultural norm for us and the other emergency services who put on our stab vests and put up with it.
Although these unreported minor incidents may appear to be of little importance – they are often assumed to be ‘one-off’s – it is the shear frequency that we have to put up with them that can have longer term effects. Stress, increased sickness and reduced performance are all acknowledged fallout.
Contrary to popular belief I have found that it isn’t individuals with mental health problems like schizophrenia who make threats to us; it is the heavy drinkers who are the biggest problem. Mental health patients in crisis may be, in some situations, excused for their behaviour. However, I don’t believe that pleading that you were simply drunk as your defence for assaulting our staff should ever be acceptable.
Relatives and bystanders can make things very difficult for us; their bad behaviour may occasionally prevent us from helping someone who really needs it. As a paramedic who works alone I have been in this situation quite a few times. It has to be said that most of our patients and relatives are not a threat and are very grateful for the professional service that we provide, but I fear that the numbers of assaults on our staff may continue to rise before the situation gets better – sad times indeed.