The Day I Called 999
With it being announced this week that Welsh Ambulances failed to meet response targets for the eighth successive month, I decided it was about time I reflected on my own experience dealing with the emergency services.
It was a bitterly cold morning last November when the event occurred. I was working at Cardiff University and driving in along the same route I had been driving for the last few months. To the naked eye the roads didn’t look too bad, the frost wasn’t noticeably visible from distance. But, as many commuters found out that morning it was still dangerous. The infamous ‘black ice’ would rear its ugly head.
I was travelling through the village of St. Fagans, a picturesque village on the outskirts of Cardiff, most famous for being where the Natural History Museum was located. This route was the quickest to work for me as it avoided the Llandaff area, which is a hotbed for school and commuter traffic. The accident happened where Cardiff Road meets St. Fagans road. Not a particularly dangerous road but it had seen its fair share of accidents in the past. Approaching from the east I was the second to arrive at the scene of the crash.
Pausing for a moment I gathered together the pieces of the puzzle to understand what was happening. My view, obscured from the car infront, showed a scattering of debris on the road with two people standing around on the phone. For a moment I thought about doing nothing, sitting in my warm car waiting for the incident to be cleared so I could get to work. It was of my opinion, that most likely someone else, older, wiser and more knowledgable of what to do in this situation would offer to help those involved. However, after surveying the scene for an extra 30 seconds, it was obvious to me that the only people standing outside were those involved in the crash. Those who know me, will confirm that I have an annoying habit of being unable to resist helping people. It was this habit, coupled with my first aid training and my conscience that led me to getting out of my car.
Now out of my car and approaching the scene wrapped up in a scarf and gloves, I could see the incident more clearly. There were 2 cars involved, a BMW and a Audi. Couldn’t have been more expensive cars I thought to myself, feeling guilty moments after having that thought. I couldn’t tell from looking at the accident directly what had happend exactly but I found out later through the people involved. The BMW, driven by an Italian male in his 40′s, was coming down the incline when his car skidded out of control. There was nothing he could do to avoid it, in that kind of situation even the most skilled of drivers would struggle to avoid an incident. As he recalled to me later, he felt “totally helpless”. The beamer skidded on to wrong side of the road and as much as the lady behind the Audi tried to avoid it, the cars collided near head on. From what I could see of the two cars, the Audi came off worse with the front end completely crumpled up. It was only later, when I was waiting for the emergency services to arrive, that staring at the incident made me appreciate just how well these cars are designed. Yes, the front end was completely destroyed and both cars a right off, but beyond that the rest of the car looked fine. The chasis surrounding the drivers seats didn’t look bent or odd at all. Years ago, I would imaging that this would have been a different story.
In the mindset that I should do whatever I can to help, I approached the person closest to me. This was the driver of the Audi, a young lady, not much older than myself who had been driving the same route as me. It dawned on me later that if had left a few minutes earlier like I normally did, that it would have been me in her place. She had just got off the phone and was clearly shaken up. I enquired whether she was okay, despite being able to see she was bleeding from the mouth. Still she said she was okay and upon closer look it was a cut lip causing the bleeding. I asked her which car was hers and what happened. After telling me, I asked whether she or the other driver had informed the emergency services. They had not. Knowing that she wasn’t in any immediate danger, I approached the other driver. He seemed to be doing better than the girl. Frustrated and annoyed by the incident more than anything. The only visible sign of injury was bleeding on his hand. I asked him about it but he said he was okay, stating he was a vet and knew it wasn’t anything serious. Having established that they were both okay, I dialled 999.
I’d never done this before and the thought of it was a bit scary. The first question they asked was what services do I require. I replied Ambulance and Police, knowing full well that my assessment of the victims as ‘okay’ wasn’t adequate enough. For all I knew they could have internal bleeding or concussion and collapse any minute. Whether this was experience from my first aid training kicking in or me watching too much TV, I wasn’t going to take any chances. I gave them my details and explained what happened. I told them that both drivers were out of the cars and talking, I gave the license plates of the cars involved and told them where the incident occurred. The services were dispatched to my location, or so I was told.
Now back to the victims. I was advised by the operator on the phone to move the people off the road. There was a grass verge on the side, so I ushered the victims that direction, along with a few other onlookers that had gathered. The grass was wet and it was still freezing cold. I spared a minute to ring a colleague at work to explain I would be late in. I didn’t realise how late I would be at that time. Having noticed just how cold it was while taking my glove off to operate my phone, I was suddenly more concerned for the victims. Cold, shock and any form of injury are not a good combination. I knew though that I was prepared. I ventured over to my car while trying not to slip on the ice. Here in the boot of my car, I had an emergency kit, made up of a first aid pack, a picnic blanket and a foil blanket. I wrapped the lady up in a picnic blanket and reassured her. I offered the gentlemen a blanket too but he declined. Joined by a friendly local tradesmen, who was the first car on scene on the other side, we talked to the victims to comfort them. First basic things, names, jobs, where they were going. We did our best to keep them warm, reassure them and make light of anything we could. The simplest things and distractions in these situations can help. In the course of conversation she told me that her hip and stomach were hurting after the crash.
10 minutes later and still no sign of the Police or an Ambulance. My feet were starting to go numb in the cold at this point. Then came the most unsavoury part of the experience. Those insensitive fools who don’t care that there has been a serious accident and just want to get to work. A few cars maneuvered their way around the wreckage, over the debris and across the icy verge to carry on their way. They could have easily turned around and gone another route but they did not. Instead they risked causing another accident. What could possibly be so important that they would risk their lives and ours in this way?, I asked myself. But it wasn’t these people that frustrated me the most. A mini bus drove up to edge of the wreckage, where the driver disembarked to talk to us. The bus was full of disabled children. The man started yelling at us, with various expletives thrown our way. He was perplexed as to why we hadn’t cleared the road ourselves. Attempting to pressure myself and a few other men in to pushing the cars a side so the road could re open, I stood up to the man over twice my age. I explained that the police told us not to do anything and that it was dangerous for us to move the cars. Not just because of the potential of there being a fuel leak, but because it was so icy we could slip and injure ourselves moving the cars. Worse than that I feared we wouldn’t be able to stop the cars once they were moving. Those around agreed with me much to the bus drivers displeasure. This wasn’t going to stop him though and he drove the bus over the debris and up the icy verge to get around. Luckily, it got round safely but there were moments when the bus was in a dangerous position.
20 minutes on now and still no one had turned up. People began to question me as to where they were, perplexed that it had taken so long for them to get here. I didn’t know either, there was Police station up the road that I could drive to myself in 5 minutes. Moments later the operator rang me bang to ask if I had been satisfied with the way they cleared the incident and asked why I sent for an ambulance when one wasn’t required. Confused I explained that no one had been here. It turns out there was another crash on the road on the opposite side of the hill. The services had turned up there, cleared the incident and closed down the query. Hoping that they would go to the right place this time, the operator assured me they were on the way. With the cold becoming a real factor we moved the victims inside a people carrier to keep warm. The gentlemen declined the invitation, out of a mixture of pride and embarrassment over the incident I think.
Moments later a man in an RAC van turned up at the wreckage. My first reaction was ‘oh great someone else who is going to want us to move the cars so they can get by’. But I was pleasantly surprised. The man stepped out of the van, made sure everyone was okay and that we had contacted the police. Then he put his lights on and went to the end of the road where cars were driving up to the crash. Here he used his van to block the road and put cones out to usher drivers away from the incident so they didn’t waste their time. He was there for at least 50 minutes, standing in the cold, doing a good public service. What I couldn’t understand though, is how much abuse he got for doing this. People were swearing at him, a few even got out their cars to physically intimidate him to let them pass. One man even threatened to ‘knock his teeth out’ if he didn’t move. I couldn’t believe it when the man told me of the abuse he got but I witnessed it first hand. Here you have an ordinary guy trying to help and he gets abuse for it. If anything those people should be thanking him for letting them know they couldn’t drive down the road before they got to the crash.
Now about 30 minutes after I first called I received another call. It was the operator again. This time he’s just double checking where we are to make sure it’s going to the right place, it seems they are on the way. At this point, however, he asks another question. “Now you’ve had time assess the situation, do you still need an ambulance?” a voice echoed down the phone. A good question no doubt if you were talking to a medical professional. But with respect how am I, a 21 year old media graduate able to give an assessment of the situation. I told them “Yes” because I didn’t want to be responsible for dismissing any injuries as minor that could be worse. Particularly now that the lady confessed to having some pain in her hip and stomach. This got me thinking later though about what a big question to ask someone, what responsibility they put on me in that situation. I’d be very interested to know whether that kind of question is standard procedure or not. There is an article in The Telegraph (see related articles below) suggesting staff were given bonuses not to send ambulances. Part of me now wonders whether this could have been something to do with it. I understand completely the logic of not sending an ambulance unnecessarily. As well as the cost, if an ambulance is out at a call when its not needed, that’s one more person in need waiting for an ambulance. But I don’t think its fair to put that pressure on an ordinary persons head.
After 45 minutes a Policewoman arrives. Her car almost slips on the ice coming down the hill. She blocked off the other side of the road so no one would approach.Then she approached our group checking on the victims. After inspecting the scene for a few moments, she radios in to confirm with the operator that everything I said had been correct. I was impressed with the way the officer handled the situation. She was friendly, diligent, calm and a reassuring presence. We chatted for a while, I filled her in on what had been happening and the conditions of the victims. I was commended for my approach and she sympathised in dealing with bus driver.
5 minutes later and the ambulance arrived. They immediately assessed the lady and put her in the back of the ambulance. It would appear I was right to be cautious as they advised they wanted to take her to A and E as soon as possible. While she was in the ambulance, her father who she had called earlier turned up on the scene. He took care of all the insurance and legal details so his daughter didn’t have to worry. At this point the Policewoman said I could leave. I decided to stick round for a few more minutes despite being numb to the core at this point because I wanted to offer anyone a lift if they required it. The Italian gentlemen told the paramedics that he was fine. I quietly advised them he had hurt his hand so they examined him. Not serious enough to warrant a trip in the ambulance, the paramedics departed. At this point I offered the man a lift but he declined. It was now about an hour and a half since I first arrived.
So that was my first experience with the emergency services. It did take a while for them to get there but I’m not overly critical of them, no one was responsible for the mishap. When I reflect on my own experiences, I’m pleased that I was able to stay calm in the situation and help people. I didn’t do anything particularly significant or heroic but my first aid training and knowledge I learnt from my mum who is a nurse did come in handy. I can’t help but reflect on the types of people I met during this experience. There were a number of frustrating and unbelievable people. However, there are those wonderful people who were kind, offered assistance and were late for work because of it. It is these people who make me have faith in this world.
- 999 staff ‘given bonuses not to send ambulances’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- Air ambulance called to surfer (bbc.co.uk)
- Neighborhood of Good Samaritans helps save man’s life (kansascity.com)