A Worthing-based paramedic has spoken out about the harsh reality of the job as the South East Coast Ambulance Service said it would be taking a tough stand against abuse directed at its staff.
You are a paramedic in a kitchen, faced with someone having a psychotic episode. They are abusive, screaming at you to get out of their house – and then you notice that within their reach is a knife block.
Your instinct is to get out. But blocking your escape route is their partner, desperate for you to help their loved one.
In this tightrope environment, all it takes is one small mis-step for a tragedy to occur – but it is a situation ambulance staff are increasingly being put in through abuse from the people they are trying to help.
Tony Faraway has worked for the South East Coast Ambulance Service (SECamb) for 17 years, and this is what happened to him. Thankfully, it had a happy ending.
The 47-year-old from Steyning said: “I escaped from the situation by walking straight at the person blocking the doorway. I surprised them, and they just stepped aside.
“I showed them my determination and just walked straight out of the door.”
Once he was a reasonable distance away, he called for backup from the nearest police unit – which by a stroke of luck was a police officer and psychiatric nurse – and they helped the patient get the help they needed.
In this example, Tony said the issue was with how the incident was initially reported to the 999 team.
He said it had been ‘exaggerated’ to get a faster response, meaning he was ‘sent in a car, on his own, to a patient stated to be unconscious’, but who was in fact ‘very disturbed’. Had they known, the police would have been sent to the scene first.
This comes as SECAmb said staff based in Worthing and Tangmere reported being physically or verbally abused by patients the equivalent of close to once a week in the last four months of 2019.
While this example involved mental health issues, many of the incidents reported come from alcohol or drug-fuelled aggression.
After many years of callouts to people who had overindulged on a Saturday night, Tony had noticed a growing trend that he believed accounted for why there were more cases of drunk people abusing paramedics.
“People used to try to look after each other in most circumstances. I think we get involved more often now with individuals who perhaps have been abandoned by people they went out with and that can cause issues.”
He added: “If there is somebody worse for wear and being abusive to people around them, if blue lights turn up they might not understand it is someone there to help them.”
In other cases, there were no other aggravating factors at all – making it hard to prepare for.
Tony, who currently works as a paramedic in Worthing, recalled another incident which sprang out of the blue.
He had been called to take someone in police custody who was unconscious to hospital when the circumstances suddenly changed.
“The patient was stretchered into the ambulance and while we were waiting for the paperwork to be sorted out with the police officers, this person suddenly leapt from the trolley and launched themselves at me,” he said.
Thankfully, police officers were on hand to detain the man who had been feigning unconsciousness – but Tony was quick to stress that this often is not the case.
In circumstances where they were alone and prevention has failed, emergency call centre operators can listen in to the situation and call for backup if needed and paramedics have a panic button at their disposal.
And according to a SECAmb report, the trust will be looking to fit all paramedics with body cameras in the near future to aid prosecutions.
Tony said the support on offer to paramedics in the wake of incidents of abuse was top notch. In his experience, the psychological impact was not immediate, but instead was a preventable addition to the ‘drip drip drip’ of the emotional trauma he and his colleagues were exposed to day in, day out: and could be the final straw that tips people over the edge.
Often, it was scars from the verbal abuse that took longest to heal, and could come from anyone, not just ‘large, drunk men’, Tony said.
He said that an elderly woman he cared for ‘was incredibly verbally aggressive’ with personal attacks against him on multiple occasions.
“The last time I spoke to her, she told me very directly that she hoped I crashed the ambulance and died.
“That will stay with me to the end of my days,” he said.
The message he hoped to get out to the public was to remind them that the reason paramedics do what they do is because they care.
He said: “I think it is important to remember that under any uniform you have a human being.
“In fact, the biggest tool we have is meeting people on a human level.”
This comes as a senior member of SECAmb had strong words to say to anyone who was abusive to his staff members.
Paul Fisher, SECAmb paramedic and operating unit manager for Tangmere and Worthing, said: “We will look to take action against anyone who assaults, threatens or abuses our staff. Our ambulance crews deserve to be able serve their community without the fearing they may be subjected to this kind of behaviour.
“We know that the people who seem to think this kind of behaviour is acceptable are a tiny minority of the total patients we treat and that the huge majority would never consider attacking or abusing someone who is trying to help them.
“We will continue to encourage our staff to report all incidents and will work with partners to ensure any individual is held responsible for such despicable actions.”
According to SECAmb, between December 28 and January 5, four incidents of physical abuse were reported by local ambulance crews. In total from September, 2019, 14 incidents of some kind of physical or verbal abuse were recorded.
A spokesman said: “Ambulance crews are encouraged to report all incidents and those responsible will be held accountable for their actions.”
The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 increased the sentencing powers of courts for such offences and the Crown Prosecution Service recently announced 50 people are being prosecuted each day under the Act.
The Association of Ambulance Chief Executives welcomed the increase in prosecutions and called for the judiciary to hand out tougher sentences to those who physically or verbally abuse ambulance staff.