Life support for paramedics
The NSW Ambulance service has released a report claiming that assaults on paramedics have increased by 60% from last year, with over 120 paramedics assaulted in NSW in the last 12 months. Lucie Robson reports.
Figures released in August by the clinical risk department of the NSW Ambulance service claim that assaults on paramedics have increased by 60% from the last year. Over 120 were assaulted in NSW in the last 12 months.
Ambulance paramedic Paul Alexander has had a used syringe full of fluid squirted into his eye. He also describes an incident in which two of his colleagues were assaulted on the same job. “One of them literally had a huge chunk bitten out of his arm.”
“It’s a real concern, and it’s something that we’re vigilant about,” Alexander continues. The damage isn’t always physical. “We certainly cop a lot of verbal abuse on a regular basis.”
It doesn’t happen at every emergency, but often enough to cause great concern.
The question being asked now is how to protect paramedics on the job. The few tense minutes of an emergency are volatile, and people can act out-of-character due to anxiety, frustration and a sense of powerlessness. Alcohol and substance abuse can affect the situation as well. The NSW Ambulance Service knows this. What nobody knows for sure, however, is how much of the violence is due to ice.
The high-purity form of methamphetamine leaves a trail of destruction. In 2006 the NSW Government commissioned a report examining the possible links between ice and violent behaviour, and its effects on crime. For those who’ve seen it first hand, more evidence is unnecessary.
“It is probably going to be the worst drug that this country has ever seen,” says Alexander, who describes the devastation caused by ice to be worlds apart from that of heroin. “Chalk and cheese.”
“The people who use it have no idea what the drug’s been cut with,” he says. “They’re psychotic, dangerous, irrational, violent. I have had someone [on ice] throw me across a room.” Alexander says that it took eight people to restrain this one violent user.
There are currently no solutions to the spike in violence caused by ice.
“We’re using the police and extra staff,” says intensive care paramedic Adam Butt. “We only have a limited range of medications that we can give.” He says that this is an area of his profession that really needs an update.
Bob Morgan, industrial officer for the Health Services Union, agrees. “Anecdotal information is that ice has increased violent incidents, and that the nature of the violent behaviour of ice-affected persons is more extreme, where and when in occurs. However, excessive alcohol is still reportedly the greatest trigger for violent events.”
Statistics from 2004 claimed that 3.2% of Australians were ice users, so its use is still minor compared to excessive alcohol use in Australia. There are no figures yet to indicate whether ice puts paramedics at greater risk.
The NSW Government launched a campaign supporting the work of paramedics last year with the first annual Thank A Paramedic Day, part of a campaign to increase the awareness that the job of a paramedic is only made more difficult by a lack of respect from the community. In August with the release of the new figures, former health minister John Della Bosca announced that he hadn’t ruled out allowing paramedics to wear stab-proof vests, an initiative that, while well-meaning, hasn’t exactly got all paramedics very hopeful. If you need a stab-proof vest, says Paul Alexander, “You probably shouldn’t be in that situation to begin with.” It wouldn’t hurt, but it wouldn’t tackle the root of the problem.
One suggestion for curbing the violence has been to increase penalties for offenders. The current maximum penalty for assault on a police officer in NSW is five years, as compared to two years for assault on a civilian. The Health Services Union (HSU) is calling for people who assault ambulance officers to be punished in the same way as those who assault police officers.
“It is acknowledged that it is an offence to assault or interfere in a police officer carrying out their duty to uphold the law, and maintain peace and good order. Ambulance officers (and other emergency workers) are also required to respond to emergencies and to provide, in the case of ambulance officers, lifesaving clinical interventions in an emergency and uncontrolled environment,” says Morgan.
“It is only logical that the same protection should be afforded to a paramedic providing lifesaving clinical assistance to the public. Not to provide such protection not only imperils the ambo, but also the patient.”
Morgan says that while the HSU hasn’t been running a specific media campaign on the issue, they have been negotiating at a political level. It is likely to be raised at the National Council of Ambulance Unions when they meet in the near future.
This proposed changes have already been enacted in Victoria, where assaulting a paramedic became a specific offence in 2004. Industrial action from the paramedic union there brought about the change. Similar calls have been made in Queensland after numerous assaults on paramedics in Cairns.
Ambulance officers themselves agree. “We should have a right to carry out our duties without being harmed,” says Butt.
“We quite often share the same dangers [as police],” says Alexander.
There are a number of things that can be done to increase safety, says Bob Morgan, one of them being: “That the public is properly educated that interfering with paramedics in the course of their duties is not only socially unacceptable, but that there is a significant penalty involved for any and all infractions.”
A change in the law may be slow to take effect. Until then, paramedics are on the road, on the scene. “I think that ambos have a really good built-in radar system,” says Alexander. “It is something that you acquire on the road.”
Do you think sentences for those who assault paramedics in NSW should be harsher? Or will this just be a punitive measure that doesn’t deal with the cause of the problem? Have your say below.