'Punched or kicked, spat at or bitten' - Assaults on 999 staff soar across West Midlands
Attacks on paramedics are soaring – and today an operations manager for West Midlands Ambulance Service said: “Enough is enough”.
Operations manager Dan Stretton has worked for the service for 17 years.
He said it used to be unusual to even be sworn at but that now physical attacks are almost a daily occurrence.
West Midlands Ambulance Service staff were victims of 525 verbal assaults and 362 physical assaults in the last financial year.
Figures released earlier this year showed that attacks on ambulance staff had risen for the third straight year.
Mr Stretton, who is based at Donnington ambulance hub in Telford, says he has witnessed the abuse first-hand and believes the assaults have contributed to paramedics leaving the profession and seeking work in other areas of healthcare.
The 37-year-old said: “There’s been a year-on-year increase in the amount of violence and aggression that’s been shown to staff.
“It’s a very sad part of the job that people have started to accept as the normal, but it is not acceptable.
“Going back 17 years, it may have been unusual to go to someone’s house and be sworn at but now it’s on a day-to-day basis.
“It can be anything from someone swearing to someone being punched or kicked, spat at or bitten.”
Verbal assaults towards WMAS staff were up from 473 between April 2015 and March 2016 and 398 the previous year. Meanwhile, physical assaults had increased from 298 between April 2015 and March 2016 and 231 the previous year.
But Mr Stretton said he believed the figures could be significantly higher as not all assaults are reported.
He said: “The reporting process is all done online. The difficulty with that is because the crews are so busy they have to get back to a computer at the hub to report it.”
Mr Stretton said some incidents had led to paramedics having to take sick days and he believes it has contributed to a fall in staff numbers.
“We have had a high turnover of staff in Shropshire and nationally there’s a lack of paramedics,” he said. “Partly that’s due to the pressures and the amount of work we have to do in a 12-hour shift.
“People have had enough of being shouted at, sworn at, spat at and they go to work in places such as GP surgeries and hospitals where they feel a bit safer and less vulnerable. You can no longer be stereotypical in the type of person who might be violent or aggressive.
“It goes across the board from teenagers to elderly people as well. It’s not always the patients, sometimes it can be relatives or bystanders. A lot of the incidents are down to drugs and alcohol but people can also get aggressive because they are frustrated.
“You don’t know what to expect. If there’s a suspicion of some sort of violence, for example someone has been stabbed, control will pass that information to the police to respond with us. Unfortunately, they are not always in a position to respond.”
Mr Stretton said he was assaulted while taking a woman to Royal Shrewsbury Hospital in an ambulance last year.
“During the course of the transfer to RSH this patient grabbed my colleague and physically assaulted her and ripped her shirt off her back, punched her and bit her,” he said. “I got into the back of the vehicle to support her.
“There was a prolonged altercation of trying to manage this person who was extremely violent. I was punched in the face.
“We had to wait 15 to 20 minutes for the police to arrive. The transfer was continued to RSH with support from police.
“We were both taken off duty following that. For the final hour-and-a-half of our shift we were out of the picture completing police statements.” He said he believed the incident contributed to his colleague leaving her role four months later.
Mr Stretton added: “Working as a crew, we’ve also been verbally and physically assaulted by someone with a baseball bat in Telford.”
The interior of ambulances are fitted out with CCTV cameras which record and will save the data if a panic button is pressed by paramedics.
The footage can be used to prosecute offenders, but Mr Stretton said quite often assaults can happen away from the ambulance.
He also believes that many paramedics feel let down by the judicial system and sanctions given out by the courts.
“There is no specific law to protect the ambulance service,” Mr Stretton said.
“We don’t carry any particular protection from the court.
“Everybody thinks that should change.
“The NHS does have zero tolerance with matters of violence and aggression and WMAS will always press for the toughest action to be taken.
“The paramedics feel very angry about it all. We are there to look after people in their hour of need. They feel very angry and upset that the job is coming to this.
“The penalties have to increase for the people doing these things.”
He said WMAS also offers counselling services to its staff and monitors the welfare of paramedics who have been assaulted.
In the West Mercia area, there were 100 verbal assaults in the last financial year, up from 73 the previous one.
These included 86 intentional assaults where the assailant deliberately assaulted trust staff, 11 related to mental health issues and three associated with clinical/medical factors.
There were 68 physical assaults in the West Mercia area in 2016/17, up from 56 the previous year.
These included 45 intentional ones, 17 related to mental health issues and six associated with clinical/medical factors.
The figures, which were revealed in a report of the West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust, show WMAS had the third highest number of assaults within the 10 UK ambulance trusts once again.