Wednesday 12 September 2012

Dial 999... & wait?

"A country in apparent shock at having to wait for an ambulance"

On Monday 3rd September the BBC aired a programme called 'Dial 999...& wait?' detailing the failings of the emergency services in this country. It's shocking isn't it; having to wait for something? Just terrible. Like with most documentaries, articles and reports about the emergency services, we all come under attack. I say all, as per usual the PR department for the Fire service has been working overtime so they came away unscathed. There was no such escape for the Police and Ambulance services. The culture of targets and response times was what the programme was about and, rather than talk about the real causes, it just highlighted the failings of the services using some well-placed stories about people suffering due to waiting times. 

First in the firing line was the police; the shocking statistic that out of 1 in 5 calls made, the police take more than 15 minutes to arrive. Outrageous. We surely expect more from our police?! I wonder what the government had to say about it... oh yeah, they declined an interview. Obviously the cuts are to blame, there is no denying that; a 20% budget cut is huge, but instead of doing a programme blaming the government they blame the police for basically being greedy. The short interview with Andrew Haldenby from the "think-tank" Reform showed only the attitudes of those not directly involved in working with or in the police. The police have 'never had more money than they have now' and 'for far to long, forces have rested on their laurels'. If cuts are being made, services will be affected. The reason the police have more money now than ever before is because year-on-year the call volume goes up. Don't for one minute believe isolated statistics of a decrease in crime; it is simply that the type of crime is changing. The police still require resources to deal with the 100's of 1000's of daily calls. This call volume will not change, yet somehow, on skeleton staff, they are expected to arrive anywhere within minutes of a call.

The example they used of peoples' suffering was a shop owner who had been burgled. She was 'shocked' at the police not arriving for 20 minutes. How many shop alarms are triggered each night? How many violent assaults are there? How many domestics? How many hoaxes? How many RTCs? How many requests from the ambulance service? How many raids are being done? How many criminals are being hunted? That is just a fraction of the work our police force is doing. In the London borough where I live there are about 330,000 residents. The borough covers 87 square kilometers and is the second largest in London. While chatting to an officer a few weeks ago on a Sunday morning, he told me there were only 13 front line officers responding to calls. He also told me he remembers when there were 30+. It's no surprise that with such huge cuts low priority calls like a shop alarm are getting a delayed response. To be perfectly honest I'm 'shocked' that the police got there so quickly.

Avoiding the fire, ironically, was the Fire Service; no shock there. No talk of missed targets, only that they arrived at a fire within 6 minutes. To be fair, it is easy to arrive anywhere in 6 minutes if you are sitting and waiting for that call to come in and get to spend all day perfecting the art of getting into your vehicle quickly. Last year the London Fire Brigade had a budget of around £437 million compared to £288 million the Ambulance Service got. They received 230,000 calls compared to the 1.6 million the London Ambulance Service received. They attended only 138,385 calls compared to 1.2 million that LAS did. They did so with their 5800 operational staff (almost double that of the ambulance service) from their 112 fire stations (compared to the ambulance service's 70), and of their calls attended, only 29,215 were fires. That is about 80 a day across London. Considerably less than 1 per fire station. Is it any wonder that they are able to respond quickly?! What was highlighted by the programme though was the crippling cuts that they are now facing. A whopping 3% in their budget! Wow! How will they cope?! Maybe they will have to send less than 25 fire-fighters to rescue a seagull from a 3ft pond. Oh wait... they refused to go in; they just sat around and watched a member of the public go in. Yes, THIS happened. Click here. It's weird how all of these facts and figures were omitted from the programme, hmm?

Saving the best until last, the Ambulance Service came under attack for people having to wait. They opened with a tale of an elderly lady waiting on the floor for hours, with the addition of an interview from her daughter about how terrible this was. I agree. In an ideal world no one would have to wait for an ambulance, least of all our elderly population. Unfortunately, the medical world uses a triage system based on what the caller tells the call-taker. As horrible and uncomfortable as it is, an elderly lady with a knee injury is not a high priority and when there are only a handful of ambulances covering a large area priorities have to be made. In this instance it wasn't life or death. Who knows what other calls were in progress. Long have I banged on about the fact that time wasters and nonsense calls just need to be told 'NO'. Sadly, Panorama decided to interview Tony Hughes for the GMB union who decided to highlight the few calls that slip through the net and are wrongly triaged. SO WHAT?! Out of the millions of calls the services receive that is bound to happen every now and again. There are not enough ambulances and staff to send one to every single 999 call that comes in.  Fact.

What annoyed me most about the programme was the failure to highlight the cause of these delays and lack of ambulances. Yes, we have faced cuts like everyone else but as of yet it hasn't had a huge impact in the amount of ambulances working on the front-line. The problem is that the call volume is going up year on year. This wasn't mentioned once. Nor was the massively high proportion of calls that we go to that are a complete waste of time and resources. No mention of the alcohol related calls we go to, the hoaxes, the split nails, the stubbed toes, the headaches, the colds, the can't sleeps, the noise in ear, the finger injuries, the needing a lifts to hospitals; basically 80% of the work we do. No mention at all that the delays people are facing are caused by the public's misuse of its ambulance service. Despite all of that though, for the first time all of the services met the category A target of reaching 75% of life threatening calls within 8 minutes. Instead of leaving it there and heaping praise on the service they interview people to highlight the apparent cheating that is going on. Calls being downgraded to meet the target? Calls being upgraded to meet the target? Is there any proof that this goes on? All ambulance staff, myself included, moan about the conspiracies, the stitch ups and mis-categorising of calls, but personally I don't think this is done to meet targets. The categories of calls change as new information comes in and I think it's highly irresponsible of Panorama to throw out accusations without a scrap of evidence. Then again, who ever said investigative journalists were supposed to research...?!

In the presenter's introduction he said 'What happens when the ambulance service decides you're not sick enough to get an ambulance?' Well as far as I'm concerned the answer is pretty simple; you don't get an ambulance because you are not sick enough. If the public and the media want an ambulance immediately then give us a budget proportional to the calls we attend. Based on the London Fire Brigade's budget per calls they receive, the London Ambulance Service's budget should be around £3 billion a year. Now mirror that across the across the country and you'll see the shortfall we face. Just imagine how quickly we would arrive with that budget at our disposal! We could probably all sit around waiting for calls, practicing getting into our ambulance really quickly, sending 5 ambulances to an elderly faller and do countless public demonstrations of our equipment... ring any bells? People expect miracles and in this economic climate miracles are not going to happen. 

So, you dial 999....& wait?! Yes. That's life. Build a bridge and get over it.


  1. Brilliant as always xx

  2. I refuse to watch BBC propoganda! I was far more interested in watching the amazing 999 whats your emergency? On Channel 4- shame the govt probably werent watching that realistic honest programme!!!!
    Well Done Ella- highlighting again the fact that our Ambulance service are treated like crap, as us the whole NHS!!!

  3. Thought provoking as always Ella.
    I can't understand how anyone could want to tarnish the ambulance service when you do so much with so little. Soldier on, you do an amazing job that one day I hope to be part of.

  4. Very well written. We all have our opinions on the way the ambulance services are run, but as we don't protect property, we don't get the pennies. People's lives are at a price, whereas the value of a shed or disused garage, are irreplaceable!

  5. Fabulous post. The fire service figures have shocked me. Talk about money clearly being spent on the wrong emergency service.

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  7. I remember our (ex) chief exec publicly making a comment that we could run the entire LFB from a single desk in our control room. Think of what we could do with the rest of their budget!

  8. No wonder the LFB want to join with the LAS. They have to justify their budget and what better way is to tailcoat with the busiest service in the UK.

    The number of times I had to get them out and when they do, its funny to see their sad little faces especially when they don't need to get any equipment out..

    I've to go now as I see a cat stuck up a tree and feel the need to phone 999 to get the Water Babies out for they may need the practice

  9. Agree - it's terribly biased journalism when you don't point out all the facts and make proper comparisons using the stats avilable. I actually would have been interested in the story about the cuts too.

  10. Mammywoo

    I was hoping you'd comment on that programme. Great post and well said!!! X

  11. As usual, a great post!
    On one hand I wish I'd seen the programme so I knew what you were talking about, but on the other I'm glad I didn't! From your post I think I would have potentially lost my voice from shouting at the TV!


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