Staff at the biggest ambulance service in the UK have seen and heard everything, as this new documentary on the London Ambulance Service proves. It follows crews as they respond to more than 5,000 calls a day and aim to get to those in need in just eight minutes.
That of course is a tough ask, and during the three-part series cameras follow an astonishing variety of calls, from a man who is having a cardiac arrest in a brothel, to someone who’s worried about an injured swan.
But as well as giving viewers an insight into the mind-boggling range of human experience in Britain’s capital, it focuses on the increasing pressures faced by this emergency service, which in 2015 was deemed “inadequate” by the Care Quality Commission. Here we meet three people who are at the sharp end...
Dean Lowes, Paramedic
You go to road accidents and see serious injuries. How do you cope?
If you’re squeamish person, you’d be daft to be a paramedic. I handle most things OK, but it’s good to talk about it afterwards – there’s always somebody else who has seen something similar. We have a counsellor network available to us, and it’s always good to talk to family and friends to get a completely different perspective on things as well.
Isn’t London so stressful you’d prefer to work somewhere quieter?
I wouldn’t want to do this job anywhere other than London. Yes, we have an incredibly high job rate, but being so busy makes the shift go more quickly and you get to meet lots more interesting people. I might go from seeing an elderly person who’s fallen over to a shooting – it’s one extreme to another.
How has the job changed since you started?
It’s a lot busier – in the past, you used to be able to go back to the station for an hour or two between calls, maybe even get a little bit of sleep. Often you’d be actually be back at the station by the time the end of your shift came, so you could just head home. Nowadays, it’s completely different, the volume of calls has gone up exponentially and there’s so much variety, too. As a paramedic, you have to keep an open mind and expect anything – you have to be prepared to go in blind.
Dan Davis, Advanced Paramedic
You say in the programme you pronounce someone dead at least once a shift – is that something you ever get used to?
In this job, the likelihood is I’m going to see a lot of dead and dying people, so it has become normal for me, but that’s not to say that I’m used to it. The day I become unaffected by it, I should probably leave the service.
How long are your hours?
I work 12-hour shifts, from 6.30 in the morning until 6.30 at night, or the other way around.
Has the job got harder since you started?
The sheer volume of calls that come in now on an average day is what we used to get on New Year’s Eve when I joined the ambulance service 12 years ago. And so, what was an abnormal, one-off day is now a fairly regular thing.
How do you deal with time-wasters?
If you got angry with every person who rang 999 when it wasn’t something critical, I don’t think you’d last long. If anything, after years of being a paramedic, I’m now less bothered about calls that don’t seem urgent.
Do you see the worst of London?
At times this job restores your faith in humanity. The calls we get from people about an elderly neighbour who hasn’t been seen for a while, or passers-by who stop when someone’s been hit by a car – you’d be surprised by the number of people who care about others.
— London Ambulance (@Ldn_Ambulance) 20 September 2016
Emma Kominsky, Emergency Medical Dispatcher
What does your daily job involve?
I take the emergency calls when people dial 999. When they ask for the ambulance service, they’ll come through to someone like me and then, based on priority, they’ll be put in the queue. I also allocate the ambulances to the jobs that we receive.
In the programme someone calls 999 because they’ve seen an injured swan. How do you react to daft calls?
People will try and exaggerate symptoms on the phone. We try and ask everyone who rings in to be honest with us and explain to them that if they make things up, they could be taking away an ambulance from someone who’s in a critical condition.
You just have to act quickly and not think too much about how frustrating it is constantly cancelling and sending ambulances somewhere else.
There’s a scene where you’re on the phone to a suicidal caller. Does that happen often?
We do get a lot of mental health- related calls, and they are becoming more and more common. It can be difficult because with cases like that it’ vital that you don’t upset them. You want to keep them calm, get all the information and get them help. All the time, you’re making very careful decisions about what you say and how you say it – it’s really important to get this right.
What goes through your head when you get a call about something really serious?
Everything stops when you get a bad emergency call. You are ticking off a list in your head of exactly what you need to do and how quickly you need to do it. I’m always really happy when I see a job go well. It’s amazing to watch how quickly an incident can be attended to and it’s even better when you find out that person has survived whatever the emergency was.
Are you able to switch off when you go home at the end of your shift?
Some horrible things do happen, but someone has to deal with that and someone needs to help those people. Anyone who says they aren’t affected by what we deal with must be lying.
However, when you’ve been in the service for a while – I’ve been doing this for five years – you learn to be able to let things go and move on, because you have to focus on the next person who needs you.
Ambulance is on BBC1 Tuesdays, 9pm