Friday, 29 July 2011

It's Time

Sitting at the side of the road at one of my normal standby points, book in hand but completely failing to read any of it, it's obvious that the school holidays are finally in full swing. Children have been let off the leash, running around playing outside until much later in the evening than usual. Some ride up and down the pavement on their scooter, others play with a ball, whilst a few more chase each other screaming, shouting and laughing with the innocence of youth. Eventually, one comes over and taps on the window.

"Are you an ambulance?"

Some days earlier, our neighbour of several years moved out. It's unusual these days to know your neighbours well, and we were very lucky that not once did we have any problems between us. The day after she left, new people moved in; a family with young children. Them and my kids hit it off straight away, and became best friends within minutes. The first night shift I was due to work since they moved in was last night. It was the first time they saw me in uniform. As I was getting into the car, one of their kids came over.

"Are you a, errr... an, ummm... an ambulance?"

Regularly, at least several times a shift, as I pull up outside an address, someone will open the door, turn their head back towards the house, and announce my arrival.

"The ambulance is here!"

The last time I checked, I was not a vehicle; I did not have flashing lights on my head (although the bald patch reflecting in the moonlight might give that impression); and I definitely did not eat diesel as one of my five-a-day fruits and vegetables. So why is it that nobody seems to know who we are, what our title is, or, quite often, what we do?

A child seeing a police officer in uniform knows that they are a policeman. Or woman. They know that those working on a fire-engine are firemen. Or women. They know that the people walking around the hospitals with stethoscopes round their necks, whether or not they can pronounce stethoscope, are doctors, and that those in uniform who do most of the doctors' work in every department are nurses. So why is it that children rarely know who we are? A teacher is a teacher, not a school. An out-of-hours doctor on a home visit doesn't suddenly become a Ford Fiesta just by virtue of the fact that that's the car that carried him.

Partially, it's probably our own fault. We don't get out there enough, meeting the public who, until they desperately need us, are happy to forget that such things as ambulances, and those who man them, exist. We're not as cool as the fire-brigade or the police, we don't give off a sense of pride like doctors or nurses.

When was the last time you heard a child say they want to be a paramedic when they grow up? Except my youngest, that is, and he's slightly biased. A few weeks ago I went into my children's primary school and spoke to the top class as part of a "Careers Day". This group of ten and eleven-year-olds were shocked and amazed by who we are and what we do, some even expressed an interest in hearing and learning more about it. For them, it's early days. It took me until I was a lot older than ten to decide on my career path, but as a child the thought of being "an ambulance" was never one of the options. Now, for them, being a paramedic is another possibility to think about, another point on a list.

It's time we started promoting who we are and what we do. It's time we were proud of who we are, of what we do, of what our title is. It's time that our public relations included more than announcing facts and figures in the news, of smiling when we hit targets and hiding in shame when we don't. It's time that our knowledge and skills spoke for themselves, that our care and compassion are the name that walks before us. It's time for our job to be recognised for what it is, for us to be recognised for our job, and not for the vehicle that carries us.

At least, in the meantime, a group of holidaying kids, a bunch of my children's school friends and some new neighbours now know.

Monday, 25 July 2011


It's nothing fancy, the end of year gift, just a simple mug. If teachers are anything like paramedics, and I think there's a lot in common, they need their cup of coffee refilling regularly. On the back of the mug there's a short inscription: 

A teacher preserves the past, 

reveals the present

and creates the future. 

Simple, but true. 

I can only regret the fact that I never, in my entire school career, had a teacher like the one this mug was bought for. Someone who has left such a positive impression, has been so inspiring, so enthusiastic over the few years he has taught my child. Some things are written in pencil, but it seems that his mark has been left in indelible ink. 

As paramedics, we only have a very brief period of time to make our impressions. Often it's a once in a lifetime experience for patients and their families, and often, even if they remember nothing else, they recall how they were treated not only as a patient, but as a person. 

It's left me wondering what a similar mug would read, if instead of teachers, it were dedicated to paramedics. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Convoys II

We were given a police radio, instructed in its use and told just to listen and not talk, unless we found ourselves in immediate danger. Out of hearing range from the scene, we were the only ones who didn't need an earpiece for the radio, so all four of us could listen in. We heard as orders were given, roadblocks inserted, a sterile area set up and snipers took up their positions. Further instructions were repeated and confirmed by the officers, and as each group arrived at its starting point, the radio traffic stopped and a tense silence filled the air.

Suddenly, an order is barked across the airwaves. 

"GO! GO! GO!" 

I knew exactly what was about to happen, and couldn't help thinking back again to the days when I would have been a part of the action. There's nothing quite like the feeling of adrenaline coursing through the body, that mix of anxiety, fear, anticipation and knowledge that you were doing a dangerous job that had to be done. The feeling that you were looking out for others, and that they were doing the same for you. Trusting someone with your life loses its cliche status when you have to do it for real.

Information was shouted back and forth, much of it in pre-agreed codes, some of which I could remember, others not. We couldn't see or hear the actual raid, but each radio message gave us another snippet of information as to how it was progressing. After a short few minutes, even before the information had been relayed by radio, we knew it was all over. 

In the distance, a police motorbike had switched its blue lights back on, and several other of the vehicles followed suit. No more than thirty seconds passed, when the call came for us. 

"Ambulance crews come forwards. Scene is secure."

Being told that the scene was secure gave us no clues as to what we would see when we pulled up. The senior officer met us outside, and gave us a brief overview. The fact that he was speaking to us at all calmed us down and left us with the feeling that there were certainly no officers hurt, and that there were no serious injuries at all. 

"They're in two rooms down in the basement. We've got no idea how long they've been there, but it must be some time." 

The tip-off note had told the police of one or two hostages, and as he spoke in plural, we presumed it was the latter. The narrow concrete stairs were lit by the dull green glow of an emergency exit sign at the top, whilst a small glint of light appeared down at the bottom from behind a wooden door. Several voices wafted their way towards us, some talking, some moaning, some crying. Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw.

Wearing nothing but underwear, nearly twenty men, aged from their teens to their sixties, were having their hands and feet untied by countless police officers. Several still had masking tape across their mouths that they were now trying to remove as gently as possible. Some didn't care about the pain, ripping the tape off in a swift motion, relieved to be finally freed of their shackles. A few could do nothing but hang on to the police officers who were the first into the room. The sight of scarcely clothed, emaciated men clinging tearfully to heavily armed and armoured police was one which would not leave my visions for some time.

They had been in that basement for anything up to a year, having been smuggled out of their home country by various means. On a promise of a better life, they were told they were headed for jobs that would keep them housed and cared for, and their families financed and fed. In reality, they'd been held as servants and slaves. They were beaten regularly, and tied up in the basement every night. A few of them had obvious fractures that had healed badly, arms and legs at unnatural angles. All were bruised, dehydrated and malnourished, like a picture from a prisoner-of-war camp.

One by one, they were either assisted or carried up the stairs, the most seriously injured or ill to waiting ambulances that had been requested the second we walked in, the rest were helped into a police minibus. At the same time, the handful of people who'd held their own captives turned into prisoners themselves. Handcuffs firmly in place, each guarded by at least two officers, they were placed in prison vans and driven away in a line of flashing blue lights.

In the opposite direction, guarded front and back by police bikes, a convoy of ambulances carrying a fragile but relieved cargo, gently snaked its way to hospital. 

Tuesday, 19 July 2011


It's a strange setting for an ambulance crew. I remember the planning stages of operations from my military days, so sitting in a briefing for a raid brings with it a rare moment of nostalgia. The idea of missing a life in a very different uniform is alien to anyone who has never been there. Explaining how it is possible to enjoy a life that is inherently dangerous, even life-threatening, is an impossible task. But ask any ex-soldier, sailor or airman, however, and the vast majority will tell you that there's always a small part of their heart and mind that still belongs to the military. 

There were four of us in the room, a manager, a crew and me, along with dozens of police officers who were  to be involved in the raid. We looked totally out of place in a sea of riot and armed police, our green uniforms standing out amongst the dark blue and black. Some were already in balaclavas, their identities known only to themselves and their immediate peers. Side arms were strapped to their legs or hips depending on personal preference, and each had a semi-automatic rifle under their seat. Just for good measure, they each carried a Taser too.

There were three presentations by three senior officers, one by one introducing themselves by name, and then speaking about one part of the operation. Access, action and egress. After they have each explained what will be happening under their command, the highest ranking officer in the room spoke about what happens if it all goes wrong.

"You'll forgive me if I don't introduce myself, but the other officers here can confirm my identity if necessary." Nobody asked, but the three senior officers subtly nodded their heads. 

"There will almost certainly be gunshot wounds," he started, "and if there are any injuries, our men will bring them out to the ambulance crews." The first half of his sentence jolted us all into the seriousness of the action. 

"We know they're armed as well, our intelligence has warned us of handguns and cold weapons too." Cold weapons aren't as innocent as they sound, it just meant that they weren't firearms. He went on to explain that they were sure of samurai swords and machetes, and suspected other weapons too. 

"There will be snipers on the tops of buildings within sight of our target, and anyone trying to escape will be shot. Lethal force has been authorised but only as a last resort. Once all the targets have been apprehended and accounted for, and the area cleared, the ambulance staff will be called forwards to triage and treat any casualties and victims inside the building."

Victims. That's what this operation was all about. This was a hostage situation, and one that had turned very serious very quickly. The police had received a tip-off. A note had been posted through the door of a police station suggesting that one or two people were being held against their will in what was allegedly a community centre, but turned out to be so much more. And soon it would transpire that it was more than one or two people who were being held.

We drove in a convoy of more than twenty vehicles, cars, riot vans, some marked as armed response units, some undercover and right at the end were the three ambulances. A helicopter hovered high overhead. Police motorbikes leap-frogged each other to ensure all the junctions along the route were kept clear for long enough to allow everyone through at once. The blue flashing lights of so many vehicles in a row was an awesome sight, yet only a handful of people were awake in the dead of night to see it. One driver who had been stopped looked as if he was watching a long rally at a tennis match, following one car at a time from left to right, then looking back to see the next one coming along. Half a mile from the scene, as if on a single switch, all the lights went off at once and it was as if the world had suddenly been enveloped in the darkness of a total eclipse.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Dot Com

I know you'd never guess it (ahem), but really, computers and me are not the best of friends. They know more about me than I'll ever know about them. Scary really. 

I'm still slightly scared of the "Esc" key in case I escape from something that then turns out to be irretrievable. 

I have no idea what most of the "F" keys do, except that "F1" is supposed to mean Help! I've tried using it when my coffee cup runs dry, but nothing seems to happen. 

It took me two months from when I started to work out how to add links, and even longer to sort out pictures.

And editing HTML? You might as well ask me to count from one to one hundred in Xhosa

But give me a chance. I mean, it's only taken me thirty-several years to work out that painting a flat, square chunk of wall isn't all that difficult. Neither, for that matter, is dropping a gallon of paint all over your laminate floor, but more on that maybe some other time.

Nevertheless, I have finally (and probably two plus-years later than I should have done), organised my own domain. So, no longer need you type all the long winded addresses should you want to find my ramblings, you can just go and ask for......... *DRUMROLL* ..........

I shan't put a link on here, as you're already here, and that would be weird. 

For now, you will see no difference, and if you head for the old address you'll still end up here. The blog will still appear on the blogger host, but hopefully, some big things may follow. In the meantime, thanks for visiting again and again to read the rantings, ramblings and general musings of a sleep-deprived wannabe writer.