HIV fears, sexual assault and being held hostage – what ambulance staff face – Manchester Evening News
Every day, life-saving ambulance staff go to work knowing they could be attacked, abused or worse.
Some of them genuinely fear they could be killed while doing their job.
Paramedics, call handlers, dispatchers, emergency medical technicians – they are all being pushed to the limit.
People who dedicate their lives to helping – and saving – others are packing it in; quitting the job they love because they just can’t take it any more.
Darren Cabaniuk is a senior paramedic with the North West Ambulance Service (NWAS).
He’s 30. Already, in the course of his career, he’s been held hostage in a flat and had to wrestle a samurai sword from a patient’s hands.
Amanda Beames, another paramedic, was violently attacked in the back of a moving ambulance by a patient who tried to stab her with a pen.
It had a serious impact on her mental health. She became anxious and was terrified her attacker would come back for her.
NWAS chiefs say shocking incidents like this are increasingly common.
Interim chief executive Mick Forrest says he is terrified he will receive a call one day saying one of his staff has been seriously injured or killed while on duty.
On average, there are three acts of violence or aggression towards staff every day.
Those are just the ones that are recorded. The true number is probably much higher.
In 2017/18, there were 1,249 incidents – including 47 sexual assaults, 32 cases of racial abuse and 12 of religious abuse.
Almost 100 incidents involved a blade, and another 26 a club or stick.
Quite often, drugs or alcohol play a big part.
‘Out of no where he storms over to the front door and locks it, snapping the key in the lock, telling us “no one is f***ing leaving”‘
Darren works in the south Cheshire area, but covered Greater Manchester for several years.
It was there that he was locked in a flat in Hattersley, Tameside, by a patient and held hostage.
“We had a call from the police – concern for welfare,” he recalled.
“It was coming towards the end of our night shift, we pulled up outside this block of flats, the chap let us in and all seemed to be going okay.
“You could tell he was having some sort of mental health episode, and that he needed to go to hospital, but he said he wouldn’t go anywhere without his mum.
“She lived nearby, so after about 10 or 15 minutes she arrived and we started to make moves to leave the flat.
“Out of no where he storms over to the front door and locks it, snapping the key in the lock, telling us ‘no one is f***ing leaving’.”
At that point, Darren hit his panic button, which allowed control staff to listen to what was going on through his radio and call the police.
Neither he nor his colleague knew how long officers would be – or what would happen in the meantime.
“My colleague, she broke down,” Darren added.
“The patient was becoming more agitated and aggressive, it was as if they were looking for something.
“You worry, are they looking for a knife or a gun, something to harm you with?
“He then stormed into his bedroom, you could hear him turning over furniture, his mum was shouting at him but he wasn’t answering.
“Then he comes out with a 6ft floor lamp, he came towards us, I thought he was going to attack us with it, but instead he goes to the window and opens it.
“We could hear the sirens coming from miles away, for a moment you feel relieved, knowing help is coming, but you don’t know how long they will be.
“The patient threw the cable from the lamp out of the window, wedging the lamp sideways in the frame, and shouted, ‘if you think I’m going to stay here to get arrested for holding two paramedics hostage then you’ve got another thing coming’.
“He then started lowering himself down the cable.
“We just left him, relieved that he was gone. I then managed to take the lock apart from inside and get us out of there.
“I went back to work the next day. My colleague took a bit longer, she was quite shook up.
“Sadly, no action was taken against the man, but if it was up to me, it would have been.”
‘I freaked out because I didn’t want her to touch my blood in case I was infected – and passed something on to her as well’
Andrea Cunningham is an emergency medical technician (EMT), covering Cumbria.
Six months ago, she tried to help a patient who had fallen through a glass table after police were forced to use a stun gun on him because of his violent and aggressive behaviour.
“He was handcuffed and a couple of officers were restraining him on the floor,” she said.
“I explained that we were from the ambulance service and there to help – nothing to do with the police – we were there to look at his injuries and he seemed to calm down a little.
“I decided to go a little bit closer, at which point he spat all over me.
“Blood, saliva, which went all over my face, and he then laughed and said, ‘I’m HIV Positive and I’m Hep C’.
“I don’t really know how to explain how it made me feel. We were there to help, and I didn’t really realise at first how I could possibly be affected if he had passed something on to me.”
As per protocol, Andrea went straight to A&E to have bloods taken. Thankfully, so far, everything has been clear, but what happened has had an enormous impact on her.
“A couple of weeks after I cut my hand at work on one of the oxygen bottles and bled quite heavily,” she added.
“My colleague, who I was on with at the time, went to grab the bottle. I freaked out because I didn’t want her to touch my blood in case I was infected and passed something on to her.
“I still think ‘what if I had contracted one of these?’. My life would be changed forever and all from trying to help someone, to do my job.”
The patient involved has since been charged.
‘I finished the call and walked out of the call centre, without telling anyone and sat in my car and very nearly just came home’
It isn’t just ambulance staff that face abuse. Those dealing with patients on the phone also feel the strain.
Martin Sheehan is an emergency medical dispatcher in Greater Manchester.
He says abuse is becoming increasingly regular. People, he said, demand their ‘f***ing ambulances’ because they ‘pay his wages’.
One Saturday night, he took a call from a patient who almost tipped him over the edge.
“He threatened to stab me,” he said.
“He threatened to ‘kick my head in’, called me every swear word that I’ve ever heard – and yet I carried on with the call as professionally as I could. Eventually, he was detained under the Mental Health Act.
“Lately, it’s just becoming more and more relentless. It’s got to the point now where I dread the beep coming through and immediately being screamed at to ‘JUST F***ING HURRY UP’ – and that’s before I’ve clarified if the patient is breathing and conscious.
“I’ve not even got an address at this point, the caller has then just become more and more irate, demanding and refusing to answer the questions and just demanding the ambulance and they’re not going to answer the ‘stupid questions’.
“I had a situation recently, where, whilst it wasn’t abuse as such, the caller just told me repeatedly that we had targets that had to be met and that she wouldn’t be getting the patient onto the floor, that we were a disgrace and she will be lodging a complaint about me.
“I finished the call and walked out of the call centre, without telling anyone and sat in my car and very nearly just came home.
“I’ve had colleagues who have left because they simply couldn’t take the abuse that they were getting on a daily basis.”
This week, NWAS launched its #getbehind999 campaign. Bosses are asking people to support their call to condemn acts of violence and aggression against all emergency service staff.
Interim chief executive MR Forrest said: “This is a problem which effects us all. If an ambulance crew are attacked while out on the road, they need to come off duty.
“They might need treatment, or to provide the police with statements and this takes a vital resource off the road and unable to respond to an emergency.
“One of my worst fears as interim chief executive is that I am going to be woken in the night to be informed of the death or life-changing injury of a colleague because of an assault.
“I cannot imagine what it must be like to have to manage a situation like that and I sincerely hope I never have to.”
This month, the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 came into force, doubling the maximum sentence from six to 12 months in prison for assaulting an emergency worker.
The new law will also mean that judges must consider tougher sentences for a range of other offences – including GBH and sexual assault if the victim is an emergency worker and also covers the role of volunteers such as NWAS’ community first responders.
A landscape gardener who mauled a policeman during a cocaine-fuelled meltdown become the first person in Britain to be jailed under the new laws.
Daniel Hilton, 27, sank his teeth into the thigh of PC Campbell Ditty and attempted to bite him in the groin area as he was being arrested for assaulting his mother at knifepoint.
For more information on the NWAS campaign, or to pledge your support, visit www.nwas.nhs.uk.