Abuse against our staff: not part of the job

Leading the busiest ambulance service in the country is a challenge and a privilege. London is a world-class, vibrant city where anything can – and does – happen.

My ambulance crews attend around 1.2 million incidents each year. We also handle millions of 999 and 111 calls. These figures are growing. How we respond to the city’s historic growth and the huge demands that it places on our service is foremost in my mind every day as Chief Executive.

But something which can keep me awake at night is the thought of getting a call and hearing a colleague has been killed or suffered life-changing injuries in the course of duty.

A few weeks ago, I was told one of our paramedics might have been permanently blinded in one eye. He was off work for three weeks. At first, it was not certain that his sight would return. Thankfully, it has. He was just doing his job and trying to help someone.

Physical and verbal assaults on emergency staff are not new, but there are troubling signs they are on the rise. So far this year, my staff have been bitten, kicked, punched, spat on, grabbed, pushed or even attacked with a weapon 346 times. If the numbers continue on this course, by Christmas we could see the highest number of physical assaults since 2016.

It’s not just physical assaults. Ambulance crews and 999 and 111-call handlers face verbal abuse on a daily basis. We record around 800 threats of violence, racial abuse and other personal attacks each year. Imagine being a 999 call handler trying to give instructions to someone that might help their desperately ill relative or friend. You are asking questions carefully designed to quickly advise on the best help that can be given before the ambulance arrives. But the caller becomes aggressive and says they will hold you responsible if the patient dies and they will wait outside our HQ to kill you.

Our staff surveys suggest the figures we have recorded for abuse underestimate the full scale of the problem. For example, last year just 29 per cent of those who experienced verbal abuse from patients said that they reported it the last time it happened to them.

We understand that when people ring 999 or see our paramedics arrive they may be going through one of the most terrifying and unpleasant experiences in their lives. But this behaviour goes well beyond what is an acceptable stress response. It does not only have an enormous psychological and physical impact on staff – it affects each and every Londoner.

Every time a crew is attacked, they have to come off the streets either for treatment or to provide statements to police. In some cases, employees may need additional support and time off work to deal with the aftermath. This takes precious resources off the streets and has a direct bearing on the quality of care we can provide.

We welcome the support and thanks we periodically receive from the public. They are people who understand this behaviour should not be tolerated and that emergency services staff deserve to be treated with respect.

Today marks the first ever ‘Awesome Movement Day’ to thank emergency service staff for the job they do and encourage others to show their appreciation in simple ways.

An ‘Awesome’ bus set off from the London Ambulance Service HQ in Waterloo Road this morning on a ‘thank you’ tour of fire stations, hospitals and police stations around London. The vast majority of patients and callers treat our staff with the utmost respect, but a small minority do not. Sadly, in the twelve or so hours the bus is on the road, one of my staff is likely to have been physically assaulted and at least two verbally threatened or abused.

Abuse has been consistently high for too long and for the amazing, hard-working people of the London Ambulance Service, I am determined that it should no longer be seen as something that ‘goes with the job’.

Garrett Emmerson

Chief Executive of the London Ambulance Service.

Garrett joined the London Ambulance Service as Chief Executive in May 2017 at a time when the service was in special measures. Driving forward the change needed to help the organisation become a primary integrator of urgent and emergency care in London, the Service was rated ‘good’ by the Care Quality Commission and subsequently came out of special measures in May 2018.

Prior to joining the London Ambulance Service, Garrett was at Transport for London as Chief Operating Officer for Surface Transport for eight years. In this role, he had overall responsibility for TfL’s road management including strategy and planning and the operation of the capital’s major road network. Before Transport for London, he was the director of a transport consultancy.