This week, the North East Desk acquired a bunch of FRUs (Fast Response Unit, ambulance car, solo, etc). There have always been FRUs in the North East, of course, but previously they were run by their own desk and while we could see what they were doing, we didn’t have any control over them. So far, I’ve much preferred having them on the desk – it’s more work but makes things easier in the long run.
However, our first weekend with the FRUs on the desk was marred by a horrible incident. We got a call to a “man lying in the road”. As I’ve mentioned before, 99% of these calls turn out to be someone drunk, or a homeless person sleeping. The member of the public who calls in doesn’t want to get too close and put themselves in danger, so they let a paramedic or police officer put themselves in danger instead. Because of course, emergency responders are made of steel and can’t get hurt. Because most of these patients are harmless, we usually leave it up to the crews to decide whether they want police assistance. On this occasion, they were happy to go and assess the patient without police.
A FRU EMT who I will refer to as Fred was first on the scene. He spotted the patient straight away, opened the door of his car and took his equipment over to him. Fred knew the patient wasn’t dead when he got to his feet and raised his fist. He didn’t even have time to reach for his phone to ring for help before he fell to the ground. The “patient” didn’t stop then, he carried on kicking and punching Fred while he was on the ground. Fred felt everything go black…
Minutes later, Jim and Bob arrived on scene in their ambulance. They saw the man lying on the ground too, and Fred’s car, but there was no sign of Fred. Then Jim looked a little closer and saw that the man lying on the ground WAS Fred, barely conscious and covered with blood. Bob jumped on to the radio and pressed his priority button to alert us.
“This is K606. We need urgent police! NE66 has been seriously assaulted, we’ve just found him lying in the road, covered in blood. My crewmate is assessing him now and I’ll get back to you on the radio.”
Horrified, we called the police and got another crew and a manager down to the scene straight away. We all felt a bit guilty – from the safety of the control room, we’d sent poor Fred in to this call and let him get assaulted. Perhaps we should have called the police or only sent a two-man ambulance? But that’s easy to say with hindsight – you simply don’t know which calls are going to turn out to be dangerous, and hundreds of calls like this one pass without event every single day. Our guilt then turned to anger – what kind of revolting low down scrote punches and kicks a paramedic as he tries to help them? What a disgusting, repugnant excuse for a human being. I hope he gets run over by a runaway ambulance and gets taken to NEWHAM GENERAL with TWO BROKEN LEGS. People like that make me sick.
It was also the worst assault I have ever seen on an ambulance crew and I wondered to myself if it was worse because Fred was on his own – would the “patient” have dared attack TWO paramedics in the same way? Are solo responders really a good idea, especially at night in “dodgy” areas? You don’t see police officers going around on their own, do you? The principle of FRUs often gets a lot of stick because they are seen as a way of meeting response time targets rather than delivering the best patient care and this incident has certainly done nothing to persuade me that we should have more of them.
Jim and Bob blued Fred into the local hospital because of his head injury and possible loss of consciousness, but we were later told that there was no serious injury and that he was being allowed home today. This was a great relief to all of us, and if you know Fred, please wish him get well soon from everyone on the North East desk!
Some time ago, I wrote about one of our regular callers, Brenda Kramer. (Not her real name – don’t start!) Brenda was an alcoholic who liked to call us out for increasingly inventive diagnoses (once she pretended her house was on fire, another time she pretended to be a neighbour who had found her, Brenda, dead). Invariably, she would turn out to have nothing wrong with her, waste the crews’ time, refuse to travel, be abusive towards them and occasionally answer the door completely naked. And ten minutes after they left, she’d call 999 again. Most call takers would recognise her voice as soon as it came through.
Since I made that last post, two and a half years ago, Brenda stepped up her abuse of the 999 system. She was calling several times every single day. Social Services, the police and her GP all got involved and a new care plan was drawn up for Brenda. Much to our relief, part of that care plan was an injunction against her calling 999. If she had called inappropriately, she would have been arrested and possibly imprisoned. In the case of a genuine emergency, she was instructed to contact her daughter, who would then call on her behalf. Only then (or if Brenda called and we were unable to contact her daughter) would we send an ambulance.
Well, the desks went quiet after that! Performance rose and the crews of Whatevertown Ambulance Station actually got on with treating some sick people. The injunction had worked.
Then, one day, we received a call from Brenda’s daughter. She’d not heard from her mother for a while, so she’d gone over to her flat. Getting no answer at the door, she’d peered through the letter box and seen Brenda lying lifeless at the bottom of the stairs. The Fire Brigade smashed the door open, but it was far too late. Brenda Kramer was dead. Finally, there had been something really wrong with her.
I feel sad for Brenda. Sad that after years of calling us out for nothing, she didn’t make the call that could have saved her life. Sad that just as her new care plan came into place, it all turned out to be pointless. And in an odd way, I’ll miss her calls, her theatrical manner, the aghast reports from the crews who attended. She was a real character. Here’s to you, Brenda.
While you may think ambulance workers are mature professionals who have seen and heard everything, every now and then a call pops up on our screen that makes our eyes water. One such call appeared the other day. A four year old boy had somehow managed to get a Triple A battery wedged irretrievably in his foreskin. (Point of note: the FRED system automatically dispatched a fast response car, thinking the “Triple A” bit referred to an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm. Not so clever, FRED…) This, of course, led to much confusion and speculation as to how the battery found itself in the offending region in the first place and the position it must be in for it to be so irrevocably wedged. No firm conclusions were reached.
The conversation progressed to other foreign objects in genitalia we’d taken calls about in the past. Vibrators, household objects, chillies, razor blades… they’ve all been misappropriated at some point, but the trump story came from a paramedic who now works at HQ. Back when he was on the road, he received a call to a psychiatric patient, who, according to the call taker, was hallucinating and believed she had roots protruding from her vagina. Well, when he arrived, the patient showed him the offending areas, and there, clear as day, were the roots. It transpired that his patient had put no less than FOUR potatoes up “there” several days ago (new potatoes, I hope, not King Edwards) and, as any gardener will know, potatoes thrive in a warm, damp environment. The potatoes had sprouted. I do not envy the poor member of A+E staff who had to dig them out.
This week, a bulletin came round from the control room from the Complaints Department. It said that when ringing back lower priority calls, people have been saying things like “We don’t have an ambulance to send at the moment. All our vehicles are out on higher priority calls, like heart attacks, babies not breathing – that’s what we’re here for”. The bulletin said we should not say things like that, because it gives the caller the impression that their call isn’t important.
I just don’t agree with this. It seems to be saying that it is wrong for Control staff to try to educate people about the proper use of the service. How are we ever going to cut down on inappropriate calls if nothing is done to teach people? By not saying things like that, we are effectively encouraging people to hang on and wait for an ambulance they don’t even need when a subtle prod would have them seeking more appropriate help which they could obtain more quickly. (We do have a telephone advice service, CTA, who ring back lower priority calls and try to point callers in a more appropriate direction, but they’re very busy, so callers have to wait about half an hour for a call back, and if the caller refuses to speak to CTA or insists on an ambulance, there is nothing they can do – we have to send, except in a very small number of cases which are covered by the almost defunct No Send Policy).
Of course, we are not *only* here for heart attacks and babies not breathing. Not every valid call is an immediately life threatening emergency – but if the call *isn’t* immediately life threatening, there should be a concrete reason for needing the ambulance (“Can’t afford a taxi” does NOT count!) – in most cases, it’s because the physical condition of the patient prevents them getting to hospital any other way. An elderly person who has fallen and has minor injuries is an example of a valid but low priority call (actually, if I had my way, it would not be a low priority call at all, but that’s a topic for another post) and it would just make the poor patient feel bad for “bothering us” if we were to point out the more serious calls we have to deal with. But for calls of the variety of sprained ankles, kids with temperatures, stomach aches, etc, I really think “We’re here for heart attacks…” is a totally appropriate and useful thing to say. Thoughts? Do you agree with me?
I must have upset management this week, because I found myself taking calls for the first time in ages. When you’re not used to taking calls it can be a bit of a culture shock to find yourself confronted with the entire spectrum of 999 callers – the rude, the polite, the stupid, the helpful, the suspicious, the infuriating and the plain bizarre. You start the day with your best “polite voice” on keep reciting things to yourself like “there are no inappropriate calls, only inappropriate responses” and “don’t take it personally, they are only shouting because they are upset” but after 12 hours the smile starts to slip. You realise that “I’ve picked my spot and it is bleeding” IS an inappropriate call, whichever way you look at it, and that the only appropriate response is unprintable and will have you on Advice and Guidance – and in fact, Spot Man is going to get an ambulance on blue lights within 14 minutes because he insists that the blood is spurting up in the air, as if from an artery. (It wasn’t. I checked the log afterward to make sure – the crew were on scene for ten minutes, “treated but not conveyed”. Just long enough to put a plaster on.) And the reason he’s shouting at me isn’t because he’s upset about his bleeding spot, it’s because he is rude and selfish and doesn’t care how many people die when he ties up the only available ambulance bringing him a plaster and AAARGH!
The job of the call taker is the most frustrating job ever. I know crews are always calling up and saying “Why have YOU made this a Cat A?” but it’s not us and it annoys us just as much as it does them.
Recently, I went on a call taking refresher course and there was a lot of discussion about how some call takers (not me, of course!) are less polite than they ought to be. The thing is that people (the training department, allocators, management, crews) forget the sheer frustration of being confronted with these awful calls and being effectively gagged and bound by the rules and script of AMPDS. I think if you were able to say, politely, “no, that’s not what we’re here for, so you can’t have an ambulance – but here’s what you should do instead” there would be far less instances of call takers losing their rag and speaking inappropriately to callers. Of course, I’m not saying that it is EVER okay for a call taker, who is being paid to be professional, to be rude, just that it is understandable. Unless you are taking calls 12 hours a day, 4 days a week, you cannot understand the pressure and frustration the call takers are under. And I think it’s good that us “upstairs” staff get stuck back on the 9s from time to time, because as much as I did not enjoy that shift, it was a reminder of what the call takers do for the ambulance service every day. Short of being out on the road, it’s the most stressful and demanding job you can do here. It might even be worse than being out on the road, actually – on the one hand, crews have physical danger and being out in the elements to contend with, but on the other, whilst crews work under their own steam and are fairly oblivious to how busy the service is (because they can only do one job at a time), call takers are under constant pressure to answer one call after another. Also, whilst patients/callers generally want crews to do their job (treating the patient) and are grateful to them, they see call takers as an obstacle to them getting an ambulance. Call takers are rarely thanked – in fact, I have never received so much as a thank you note even though there are several people wandering around today who wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t been doing my job.
It’s not all rudeness and timewasters though – if it was, I’d have given up this job and gone and worked somewhere where I don’t have to wear green or sacrifice my weekends. The polite, helpful, kind people who call in make it all worth it. The mother of a severely disabled sixteen year old who’d developed serious breathing difficulties (“again”, she sighed), the passerby who stopped at a road traffic accident and took control of the first aid and the bystanders, the kind drug abuse support nurse who’d come round to check on a client on his day off and found him collapsed on the floor, the little old lady who didn’t want to bother us with that silly pain in her chest and down her arm, and even the man who rang because he’d seen a dog been hit by a car and didn’t know what else to do. (I gave him the RSPCA emergency number. There are no inappropriate calls, only inappropriate responses…) Those decent people are the ones who make it all worthwhile.
I expect I’ll be back upstairs tonight!
It’s become a bit of a running joke that whenever I work on a particular desk on the other side of the room (usually when I am in on overtime), everything kicks off and there is calamity and disaster. Well, the other week, I worked on that particular desk as an allocator, and it was the day from hell. There were three open leg fractures, an old lady crushed by a milk float, a stabbing, a bottling, a fight between forty people and an extremely suspicious death… but one call overshadowed the rest.
The Desk of Disaster, unlike my usual home, the North East, contains large patches of countryside, the no man’s land between London’s suburbs and the territory of the neighbouring ambulance service. Even on blue lights, running from the nearest ambulance station, it takes at least fifteen minutes to reach these areas. (Okay, I am anticipating a derisive snort for those of you who work for Scottish Highlands Ambulance Service and the like, but for us, that’s a long way. Most Londoners live within five minutes of an ambulance station. It’s rare for me to run one more than three miles on the North East). Of course, not a lot tends to happen in these areas, so they don’t generally cause much concern, and now we have every crew’s favourite Active Area Cover (explanation from Tom Reynolds) we have an ambulance hovering around the one village in this area anyway. Which meant when had a call to an 80 year old man who had fallen and banged his head, we were on scene within 5 minutes. Super!
Unfortunately, fifteen minutes later, another call came in Ruralsville, and now the nearest available ambulance was 8 miles away. It was at one of those big posh country houses up a track, miles from the main road. Response time hell. I gritted my teeth and silently prayed it was going to be something trivial, because we had nothing for it.
“TODDLER FELL IN SWIMMING POOL” typed the call taker. “NOT BREATHING.”
Now, I don’t panic. This job requires one to have a clear head and unflappable nature at all times. But if I was going to panic, that would have been a good moment for it. You may just have seen a bead of sweat on my forehead if you looked closely. There I was, doing a job two grades above what I am paid to do, on an unfamiliar desk, working with people I’d never worked with before, and I had a suspended toddler in Outer Mongolia that I couldn’t cover! This was not good.
The first thing I did was to dispatch that ambulance 8 miles away in suburbia. I can imagine their faces as they saw the address and diagnosis, but they didn’t question it and started running on the call straight away. The second thing was to stop the radio op, who was in the middle of dealing with something else, in her tracks and demand that she broadcast the call straight away. (First rule of dispatch manners: don’t interrupt the radio op, it is v rude and irritating. Second rule of dispatch manners: when you have a suspended child, drop everything, including manners). A crew at the nearest hospital heard the broadcast and offered up straight away. They were still five miles away, but a three mile improvement. I sent them and cancelled the first crew. We were getting there. Checking the log, I saw an FRU had been dispatched from 3 miles away and HEMS had also been sent (these are handled separately by other desks in the same room).
Then, our prayers were answered. The crew who’d been on Active Area Cover in Ruralsville, and were just leaving for hospital with the elderly gentleman on board, called up to tell us they would attend the call to render aid to the child until the others arrived. (They later explained that they’d had a third person, a student paramedic, on board, who sat with the elderly man whilst they dealt with the child). They were less than two miles away.
Meanwhile, whilst my colleagues on the Disaster Desk and I performed the less urgent tasks like notifying the police, the DSO (ambulance crews’ manager) and our managers, two call takers were on the phone to people at the scene. Both these call takers did fantastically and afterwards the crews rang up to ask us to pass on their thanks. One call taker was speaking to an adult male at the scene and got us the full address and directions very quickly. The other was speaking to the biggest hero of the story – a teenage girl who was at the poolside. It was this girl who’d spotted the toddler in the pool and dived in to drag her out, and now, with the call taker’s instructions, she was performing perfect CPR, which she continued right up until the moment the first professionals arrived.
It’s a bit strange in the control room when you get a complicated call like this, because there is so much to do until the crew arrives on scene, but once they get there, it all goes quiet and there’s nothing you can do but wait. Oh yes, and deal with the constant stream of heart attacks, road traffic accidents and teenagers with flu that have come in in the meantime.
About an hour or two later, we had a call from the DSO, who let us know the latest. It was very tentative good news – the toddler had been taken to the Royal London by HEMS and was alive, but in a very serious condition. All the crews involved were going off the road for a stiff cup of tea (except the crew with the old man on board, who had to stop off at the hospital to drop him off!) HEMS told us that the toddler was on a ventilator and was undergoing tests on her brain. They’d let me know the outcome next time I was in.
I thought this was a pretty good example of teamwork and how well people can pull together when we’ve a genuine emergency on our hands. If one piece of the jigsaw – the professionalism of the call takers, the quick thinking of the crew with the old man on board, the prompt action of the crew at the hospital, the heroism of the teenage girl on the scene, the way we on the Disaster Desk pulled together – had been missing, the child would have been dead before anyone arrived on scene. It just goes to show that whilst we might all bicker about each other (lazy crews that spend too long at hospital, unsympathetic control staff who bully crews who have done nothing wrong, call takers who can’t spell, unhelpful members of the public, etc…) when it really counts, none of that matters.
I’d like to say there was a happy ending to the story, but this isn’t Casualty, and there wasn’t. Two days later, when I came in for my next shift, HEMS told me that the tests on the toddler’s brain had come back with bad news, and she’d subsequently died. The consolation was that her organs had been suitable for donation – which they wouldn’t have been if she’d died before she got to hospital – and so even though everyone’s efforts didn’t save her life, they indirectly saved others. So all in all, a good day’s work.
Nee Naw has been given a revamp by my friend Eddie of I Want Your T-Shirt Web Design. Please take a minute to have a look at the new design and give me your thoughts. I’m loving the new look but if there’s anything you lot think could be improved, leave a comment here and I’ll pass it on.
I am pleased to report that finally, after a year of torment, Banana Man has been caught and stopped. I worked for twelve hours on the East Central desk today and there was NOT ONE single call to that particular Woolworths, no one collapsed on the runway at Gatwick Airport, no itchy penises and definitely no offers of a banana. He was caught by an ingenious police officer, who called him back pretending to be someone running a competition, asking him to give his name and address so his prize could be sent. Banana Man took the bait and revealed all.
It transpired that Banana Man is only a teenager and is seriously disabled, so at the moment he isn’t being prosecuted. Social Services are getting involved and trying to put a stop to the calls, and so far so good. I must admit that after months of tearing my hair out after being terrorised and frustrated by this individual, my sympathy-o-meter is rating about a zero and I am not terribly impressed by this lenient attitude. Disabled or not, he had the presence of mind to go out and acquire SIM card after SIM card after having them cut off; he was with it enough to answer call taker’s questions and laugh when they reprimanded him for hoaxing. I just don’t believe that he was totally unaware of the consequences of his actions and I think he should receive some kind of punishment for it. It also begs the question, if he is young and/or disabled, where were his parents or carers when the calls were being made?
Still, I suppose this is not for me to worry about and I should just be grateful that I will never be driven to distraction by him again. I expect to see a sharp decrease in the number of calls recorded in the East Central from now on.
For some reason, it seemed the depressives of London all decided to pick the same weekend to attempt to end it all. Even the nurses answering the blue call phones at the hospital commented on the number of overdoses and slit wrists that were coming in. There was one call that stood out, though. A woman in her thirties. Her husband had just walked out, leaving her with a selection of children between four and twenty-one. Beside herself, she couldn’t go on. Then and there, in the presence of her kids, she’d decided to commit suicide. You may ask yourself what sort of person would kill themselves in front of her children, but if you want proof that the balance of her mind was disturbed, look no further than the method she used to die.
She drank hydrochloric acid.
If you’re not familiar with hydrochloric acid, it’s a pungent, fuming corrosive that will burn through almost anything it comes into contact with. It is highly reactive and dangerous. Just inhaling it can be fatal because of the damage it will cause to your lungs. It is used for removing rust from metals, unblocking drains and in oil production for dissolving rock. The acid burned through one of the paramedics’ gloves and ruined the ambulance’s blanket. It took nearly an hour for the crew to clean up the vehicle afterwards.
The patient’s children tried to help her and in doing so, got the chemical on their bodies, causing some nasty burns, so the crew took them in too. A blue call was placed, and the patient was semiconscious and breathing at the time, but as the crew told me later, they didn’t think she could possibly survive. That acid would eat her up from the inside out.
On the way to the hospital, the patient’s ten year old son told the paramedic that as soon as he was back from the hospital, he was going to kill himself too.
On the whole, not the most cheerful of calls.
Meanwhile, on the extreme other side of my patch, a Hornchurch crew were on the way back to their ambulance station, which is located in a semi-rural area on the very edge of London. They were flagged down by a rather frantic looking FRU, who’d come across a loose horse wandering across a dual carriageway.
Horses aren’t entirely my speciality, and this is the LAS, not the RSPCA, but they couldn’t exactly just leave it, so I typed the incident as a running call and called the police, hoping they’d have the faintest idea what to do, because none of us did. An hour later (and fortunately with no life threatening calls in the crew’s area that couldn’t be covered, because that would have presented me with a dilemma) the horse was rounded up and returned to its rightful field.
When a crew attend a call and don’t take the patient to hospital, they have to record a “non-convey reason” on the computer, from a picklist with options such as “deceased, not removed”, “referred to GP”, “assist only” etc. I was amused to see that the crew opted for “declined aid against advice” in this instance. This conjured up images of the crew chasing the horse around and trying to take its blood pressure whilst the horse galloped away, whinnying “Please don’t take me to Newham General!” It had been a long night.
Two police officers on the beat around 2AM, five minutes walk from where I live, saw a gang of youths running away from a bus station. Running to the bus station, they found a eighteen year old boy lying on the ground with serious stab wounds. The ticket the police sent us requested an ambulance “on the extreme hurry up”. Fortunately, one of my vehicle had just finished up at the hospital, about a mile away, as the call came in. It only took them a couple of minutes to reach the bus station, but it was too late. The boy’s injuries were too severe, and although they blued him into hospital, he died.
Six hours later, at the end of my shift, I passed the bus station on my way home. I could see the blue and white police tape, a couple of patrol cars, and that people had already started to lay flowers at the scene. Though this was exactly what I expected to see, it was still a disquieting sight. Sometimes, working in the control room, where you can see nothing and only hear of events second hand, it almost feels like the incidents we deal with aren’t real – like an elaborate training exercise set up to challenge us. Seeing the aftermath, something as simple as an empty crime scene, brings home that every single patient is a real person with a real life to lose.
I clocked it as a hoax as soon as it came in. We’ve been getting regular hoaxes from a male who gives various addresses around a dodgy council estate in the East End. He’s cleverer and more calculating than Banana Man – he never gives the same address twice, so we can’t simply tag the location as one we do not send to, he uses different mobile numbers and call boxes, so we can’t recognise him by the number, and he gives outlandish yet plausible diagnoses – “I’ve stabbed my wife”, “My girlfriend has overdosed and isn’t breathing” and, on this occasion, he told us he’d been shot, howled in pain, then dropped the phone as if passing out.
I knew it was going to be a hoax. But I couldn’t treat it any differently. I sent the only ambulance in the area that didn’t have a patient on board, which was on its way to a 60-year-old man who was having a suspected heart attack, and a manager from another sector, as ours was already on a job. (It is protocol to always send a manager to firearms calls.)
The crew and manager waited for fifteen minutes round the corner whilst the police checked out the location and found some confused, sleepy people who had definitely not been shot. Everyone was stood down, and the crew continued to the man with the suspected heart attack. Fortunately, the FRU had been able to deal with him in the meantime and his condition was stable. If things had worked out differently, our hoaxer really would have been a murderer.
We get loads of these calls. Hundreds. The story goes, a helpful passerby has seen someone lying (NOT “laying”, please dear call takers) by the roadside, has not wanted to get up close to them, has rung us and has been unable to verify if the patient is conscious or breathing, and thus we have to treat them as if they are in cardiac arrest until proven otherwise. 99.9% of the time, not only are these patients not dead, they are not even ill. Some of them are drunk and a lot of them are merely homeless people sleeping. They rarely take kindly to having an ambulance crew turn up and prod them, and us control bods are similarly unimpressed that these calls have to take precedence over strokes and fits and broken legs.
So when we got the following ten minutes from the end of the shift:
Male lying at side of road, described as possibly deceased, umbrella over head, ? blood on clothes. Life status questionable, category Red 1.
I groaned inwardly and felt really guilty about sending that poor ambulance crew out in the driving rain and making them at least half an hour late for the end of their shift all because someone had picked an unusual place to have a kip…
… Well, I woke up this afternoon and found a text from one of my colleagues. Mr Life Status Questionable was actually DEAD! Very dead, in fact! So I must remember in future that just occasionally, the public are right to call these things in…
Having worked out that we are no longer sending ambulances to that address that might just be a Woolworth’s in the East End, our obsessive hoaxer has now taken to telling us he is at Gatwick Airport. Sitting on the runaway. Suffering from an itchy penis. Offering us bananas. I must have spoken to him twenty times last night.
I swear that if I ever come across this individual, I will do something with a banana which necessitates a genuine phone call to the emergency services.
Apparently we are getting a spell checker added to the call taking system. This is not a moment too soon. I sometimes think the ambulance service has a deliberate policy of employing people who cannot spell “vomiting” (it’s either vommiting or vomitting. Occasionally vommitting…) or diarrhoea (the permutations are endless…) I know diarrhoea is a difficult word to spell and some people are dyslexic or whatever, but honestly, if you need to write a word several times a day, you should learn to spell it! It’s a shame that a spellchecker won’t pick up the countless calls to persons “laying” in the road (to which my response is always “Laying what? An egg?”).
I’m not sure the spellchecker would help with the following error, though. We had a call to a house called “High Gables” the other night. The call taker spelt it “High Gay Balls”. We may have laughed at this longer than was strictly necessary…
I’ve been on nights this week, so I was only really involved in the Walthamstow and Tottenham stabbings, though I caught the aftermath of the Leyton one. As they’ve all been reported in the national news, I can’t give any details other than to say what I heard from the crews and 999 callers was quite stomach churning and heartrending, and why the hell do people go round doing this to each other?
What the newspapers DON’T report is the hundreds of non-fatal stabbings that happen every day. Stabbing used to be a major big deal, but now it’s commonplace, and only makes the news if someone died. There was another stabbing in the afternoon on my sector, where the patient had life-threatening head wounds, but I cannot even find one mention of it on the news. The sad thing is that it’s only going to get worse, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in ten years’ time, shootings were just as commonplace as stabbings are now.
A while ago, I wrote about Jimmy, a regular caller of whom I am rather fond. (A stark contrast to most of our regulars, who are complete pains in the posterior). Shortly after I made that post, Jimmy called us feeling suicidal and was taken in to the local hospital – something which has happened on countless occasions before. From that day on, we heard nothing. Jimmy went from calling us several times a night to never calling us at all. I remembered what Jimmy had told me – that he’d been told he wouldn’t live to see his 25th birthday, that he was now 26, and certainly wouldn’t live to see another birthday unless he stopped drinking… despite his best efforts, Jimmy had cut down but not stopped. I assumed the worst, and felt sad for Jimmy. This is one of the perils of being an ambulance dispatcher, when one of your regulars stops calling, you have no way of knowing what happened to them. I hoped he was still in hospital, or had moved out of London, or even had miraculous recovered from his addiction, his depression and the health problems caused by his self harm, and didn’t need us any more, but I knew that the most likely explanation was that Jimmy was dead.
This week we received a call in the dead of the night from a address about two miles from where we last saw Jimmy. It was from a 26 year old male, suicidal, threatening to slit his own throat. The landline he was calling from was registered to a “G Smirnoff”. Jimmy’s surname, different initial. Could this be Jimmy, staying with a relative? How many twenty-six year olds are there in North London with that surname and a penchant for slitting their own throats?
As soon as the call taker hung up, I knew I had to call back to see if it really was Jimmy.
The young man on the other end of the phone was in a terrible state. Hyperventilating, crying, talking gibberish.
“It’s the ambulance service,” I said. “Help is on the way – I just need to take your name. For our records.”
No answer. I wasn’t even sure he was listening to me. “Oh god, oh bloody hell,” he moaned. “It hurts…”
The ambulance and police crew were just pulling up. I tried once more.
“What’s your name?”
“Jimmy… Jimmy Smirnoff…”
And the line went dead.
And I almost got up and punched the air in jubilation that Jimmy wasn’t dead.
Jimmy was later blued in to the local hospital with a deep, self inflicted laceration to the neck. It wasn’t an arterial bleed and it wouldn’t be the first time he has done this, so I was not overly worried or surprised. I’m just glad he is alive, and I wish he could know that.
The call on our screen was from Greater Manchester Ambulance Service, and there was a lot of detail crammed into a short space.
“30yof ? ‘mental breakdown’. Has just had daughter taken away from her. ? suicidal. Sister in Manchester concerned for her safety. Sent text saying ‘goodbye’. Patient’s name Anna, sister’s name Jenny.”
A lot of the time, we get calls like this, turn up, find the patient drowning their sorrows but otherwise okay and make a reassuring call to the concerned relative. Other times, we find the house locked, with no answer at the door, call the police round with their enforcers to break it down… just at the point the ‘patient’ returns from shopping. Such ‘patients’ are rarely impressed.
On this occasion, however, the ambulance crew found the door wide open, and the flat empty. The ambulance crew called me on the radio to ask what they should do next. I called Jenny, the sister, to explain what we’d found.
“She’s gone somewhere to kill herself!” sobbed Jenny.
“Do you have any idea where?” I asked.
“No,” said Jenny. “I don’t know London at all! She’s only been living there two months. She moved there to get away from her partner when they split up and took her seven year old daughter with her. But they said her daughter’s got to stay with her partner. They came and took her today. She’s not coping at all, she’s gone crazy. I seriously think she’s going to do something stupid…”
“Do you have her phone number?” I asked.
“Yes,” sniffed Jenny, “but it’s no good, she won’t answer.”
I took the number anyway. Sometimes people WILL answer when it’s a number they don’t recognise, even when they’re ignoring their family and friends. Even in the depths of suicidalness, curiosity wins over. Sure enough, the phone was picked up on the second ring.
“Hellooo?” said a wild, tearful and somewhat drunk sounding voice.
“Is that Anna?” I said. “This is the ambulance service. We’ve had a call from your sister, Jenny. She’s very concerned about you, and she’d like an ambulance to check you over. Can you tell me where you are so we can do that?”
“I don’t WANT an ambulance,” wailed Anna. “I just want to go to sleep! I am nothing but trouble to everyone. I’ll be wasting their time. There are people there who deserve help! Don’t waste your time on me when people are really sick! Tell them to go away!”
We can’t force anyone to have an ambulance if they don’t want to, but there’s no rule against gently trying to persuade them to change their mind, and I certainly thought Anna could do with talking to someone.
“Anna,” I said, “you’re not wasting anyone’s time. We’re here to help people like you. Your sister has called us, we can’t let her down. I’m not allowed to let the ambulance leave until they’ve seen you and made sure you are okay”. (This isn’t strictly true but I was pretty sure she wouldn’t know that.)
“I’m not okay, I’ll never be okay,” said Anna. “I just want to go to sleep. I’m very tired.” Her voice was slurred and distant.
“Have you taken something?” I asked, a feeling of dread rising.
“Tramadol, zopiclone… I took them all… I just want to go to sleep…” she muttered.
Oh, great. I’ve spent enough time on the phone to Guy’s Poisons investigating overdoses for crews to know that this was a potentially fatal overdose. We needed to find Anna.
“Where are you?” I asked. “We need to find you. Please tell me where you are.”
“It’s a nice place to go to sleep,” rambled Anna, seemingly missing the point of my question. “There’s grass, and a weeping willow. I like weeping willows.”
All the while this was going on, I still had the radio in my ear, with an increasing queue of impatient ambulances calling up wanting to speak to me. We usually have a dispatcher to do long winded tasks such as ringing back suicidal people who don’t want to be found, but there’s not enough of that type of work late at night to justify having one, so the radio operator has to do everything. J402 were shouting in my ear every five seconds, “J402, red base, J402! We need to go for fuel! Red base! J402!” and I don’t mind saying that this was rather distracting.
“Where’s this weeping willow?” I asked. “Is it in a park? Are you near your house? The ambulance crew are at your house. Can you go back there?”
“I won’t go back there if they are there,” said Anna, “goddamnit it… I left my travelcard there, now I can’t go back for it… still, it’s okay here, under the weeping willow in the park…”
You see what she was doing? With one breath, she was telling me she didn’t want to be found, with the next, she was giving me clues. She was in a park with a weeping willow, and she’d not had her travelcard with her, so she must be walking distance from home.
Ding-a-ling-a-ling! Suddenly an ambulance pressed its priority button, meaning it had something important to say to me on the radio that could not wait. Hurriedly, I summoned a colleague to answer the radio, then turned my attention back to the phone.
“Anna,” I said, “please let us help you. You’ve taken an overdose which is most likely going to kill you if you don’t get to hospital quickly. You’re not going to go to sleep, you’re going to die and if you die you’ll leave your sister devastated and you’ll never see your child again. Is that what you really want?”
“No! I just want to sleep! I just want the pain to end.”
“We can help you. Just tell us where you are.”
“I told you! Under the weeping willow!”
And with that, the line went dead. I tried to call back, but she wouldn’t answer. Seemingly, she was challenging us. She was giving us enough information to work out where she was, but not making it easy for us. We’d have to show that we really wanted to find her by putting some detective work in. I turned my attention back to the radio.
“NE22. I’ve just spent ten minutes on the line to your patient. She’s taken an overdose of tramadol and zopiclone and she’s in a park, walking distance from her address, sitting under a weeping willow. I don’t suppose you have any idea where that might be?”
“Oh, the weeping willow!” said NE22 sardonically. “Right! I reckon there must be about five hundred weeping willows in Walthamstow. We’ll start looking, but this could take some time. Perhaps you’d better notify the police, over.”
Funnily enough, at that exact moment a new ticket came in from the police:
“Uphill Park, E17. Under weeping willow tree. 30yof ? psychiatric, crying hysterically, talking to self.”
I directed NE22 to the park and crossed my fingers. Just because we knew where she was, it didn’t mean we’d find her. After all, it’s easy to hide in a park in the middle of the night if you don’t want to be found.
Five minutes after NE22 arrived at the park, they had Anna on board and were on the way to hospital. I guess she didn’t try too hard to hide. I guess she did want to be found after all.
I will never understand why some people think it is funny or clever to hoax call the emergency services. Hoax calls cost lives. Whilst ambulance crews drive round in circles trying to find patients that don’t exist and accidents that never happened, and control staff waste hours on the phone trying to determine the location of fictitious incidents, other, genuine patients are put in danger.
The vast majority of hoaxes come from children, most of whom, I hope, get a stern talking to from their parents when the ambulance turns up (children tend not to realise that we can trace any landline call, and the owner of any registered mobile!) and never do it again. There are also a fair few from older teenagers, who, I’m guessing, are doing it for a dare. This type of hoax is pretty easy to spot; the diagnosis is usually blurted out in a rehearsed manner and involves “someone” and a medical diagnosis rather than the more usual description of what has happened. (“Someone’s broken their leg!” as opposed to “My brother fell down the stairs and his leg hurts!”) The caller usually hangs up on further questioning, usually without giving an address. If they do give an address, it’s usually a main road. I can’t ever remember taking a hoax call and not realising it was a hoax at the time, which makes it all the more frustrating because unless we’ve already been to the address that day, we have to treat every single call as if it were genuine.
Somewhat more sinister are the regular hoaxers. We’ve had a few of thesever the years. Some have been prosecuted but some we never find. If a caller uses an unregistered mobile or a payphone to call, it’s pretty much impossible to trace them. There was one young woman who called us every night for months, giving an address near her own every time. When she was eventually traced it was found she was mentally ill and had an obsession with ambulances. Her bedroom wall was covered with pictures of them and she was calling 999 just so she could see one outside. There was also a spate of hoaxes to one address which were believed to be coming from the ex partner of the person who lived there. They always gave outlandish reasons such as “house on fire” “plane crash” and on one occasion, “my wife has cut my testicles off and cooked them in the over”.
This week, we’ve been utterly inundated with calls from possibly the most annoying hoaxer ever. He’s been calling us for a couple of months now, but this week the call rate has gone through the roof. I’d say he is calling a couple of hundred times a day. Each call taker will end up speaking to him around ten times per shift. Of course, we’ve had his mobile cut off, but he just goes out and buys a new one, and he’s back again. He gives his address as 20, [long and well known road], E1. The address he gives doesn’t, strictly speaking, exist – the road covers more than one postal area, and number 20 isn’t in E1. In actual fact, as we discovered the first time we were called out there, number 20 is a Woolworths.
This guy thinks he is *hilarious*. He loves to give his diagnosis as “itchy penis” and I think this is just because he is amused by the word “penis”. Sometimes he will just call up and laugh and say that he needs an ambulance because he or his girlfriend (surely a moron like this cannot possibly have a girlfriend?) cannot stop laughing. Sometimes he will just sing his “address” at us and laugh hysterically. He knows that we cannot hang up on someone if they say they need an ambulance so he will always maintain that he needs an ambulance, despite rarely giving a coherent reason for doing so. Lately, he has given up on giving any medical reasons for needing us whatsoever – instead he will alternately offer the call taker a banana, or request that a banana is brought to him. According to one rather exasperated emergency operator I spoke to, when asked “Emergency, which service? Police, fire or ambulance?” he replied “Greengrocer”.
If I didn’t think it would lose me my job, I would quite happily post Mr Banana’s phone number up on my blog and encourage every single reader to call him, preferably at 3 in the morning, and offer him random items of fruit and veg and see how HE likes it.