Ambulance life

For those who read my posts on a regular basis, you may see a pattern appearing in my ‘Ambulance Stories’ category. That pattern is that many of the calls we were sent to, differ greatly from the description given to us by Ambulance Control. This may seem fanciful and affected to the outsider, though I can assure you that all these stories are 100% accurate. Perhaps some explanation of general life as an Ambulanceman in London (at least when I was still in it ) will put some of this into better context.

At the time I joined, the London Ambulance Service was a very different organisation to the one it is today. It was short-staffed, under-funded, and the staff were poorly paid, and did the job with very little equipment. Many of the operational managers were ex-military types, and the uniform reflected this, in being totally unsuitable for the job. We were provided with made-to-measure jackets and trousers, from a well-known high street chain of tailors. There was a short gabardine overcoat issued, as well as gloves, rain mac, clip-on ties (for safety reasons) and of course, a cap. Shoes were provided, but they were issued for smartness, rather than practicality. The golden rule, was that both members of staff on the ambulance must be dressed the same at all times; so if you wanted to take off your jacket, your colleague had to do the same, and so on.

During training, we had to parade for pay, as in the Services; and we were divided into classes that would rotate around the different modules, mainly due to the chronic shortage of equipment. The exception was the driving course; this was up to Police standards, fully comprehensive, and taken very seriously. Otherwise, it was a Dad’s Army event, wooden splints, triangular bandages, blankets in abundance, and little technical skill necessary. This is no reflection on the Instructors, as they did the best they could, by imparting their own skills, and experience. The accepted standards of today’s Paramedic; Infusion, Intubation, Defibrillation, Drug Administration, that all came a lot later. After training, we would be assigned, as a pair, to a Training Supervisor, who would look after us for a six-week operational training period, always undertaken in Central London, at the busiest Ambulance Stations.

During this period, we learned to completely distrust and despise Ambulance Control. They were not Operational Staff, and few had ever been. Yet, they bossed us around as if they knew what was happening, and had the required rank to get us into serious trouble, if they so choose to do so. From a small Control Room in Waterloo, they lorded over the staff like kings, and spoke to us as if we were as low as could be. With notable exceptions, they were regarded as the enemy, and rightly so, in my opinion, then, and now.  As a consequence, we learned to argue with them all the time, and to disregard their sloppy diagnostic efforts, as well as to avoid all but necessary contact with them. In all the years that I served, I probably only respected five Control Staff, and all of them had once been operational.

There are three emergency services operating in London, and the LAS  was, by any examination, the poor relation, or the Cinderella service. The London Fire Brigade was the premier service. They took charge by default, whatever the situation we found ourselves in. This was a legacy of various events, and of better training, and equipment. We derided them with various nick-names; Smurfs, Water fairies, Window Cleaners, Yellow Trousers. They were muscle-men, locked in camaraderie, and with Local Council working conditions, much envied by the other 999 services. Their perceived intelligence was low, and they embraced their priority with an embarrassing fervour. After them, came the Metropolitan Police. They had a good working relationship with the LAS, and the same dislike and distrust of the Fire Brigade. If we went to an incident jointly, we had to operate under the instructions of the LFB, something that went against the grain, for both the LAS, and the Met Police.

So that was the structure. Fireman first, Police second, Ambulance third. I received the pitiful sum of £49 a week in 1980, that was after taxation and other stoppages, for a 40 hour week, on a full 24-hour shift rotation. Breaks were not guaranteed, and if we had no break all shift, we were paid £1.50p in allowances. With that in mind, it is obvious to anyone, that at least most of us, were doing the job for the right reasons, and with the best of intentions. So, whatever you may read in my blogs, you can now put it into context of the time and place, and the working conditions we faced. Hopefully, you may feel more sympathetic to the situation we were in, and understand more of the cynicism, and subsequent militancy that developed in time.

This is an overview of the early days. Things did change later, though not always for the better. That is another post though.

31 thoughts on “Ambulance life

  1. I know this was 2012 but I was interested in the subject matter. I think I’ll share this with my brother, who does not blog, but who was a volunteer firemen/EMT in rural Iowa. In the USA we have sparsely populated wide open spaces and a lot of work is done by volunteers. It was an interesting post. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, dunelight. If you look at my categories on the right, there are many ‘Ambulance Stories’ that might interest your brother.
      (It was from 1979-2012, and this post refers to the earlier period)
      Best wishes, Pete.


  2. Thanks for this really interesting presentation, Pete! By the way, we have a volunteer fire brigade here. Politicians save a lot of money for themselves. 😉
    You were really totally involved in security management in the UK. Actually, you should now be a senior advisor on the crisis team, or personal security advisor to the Queen. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’d read some of your ambulance stories, but you were right, as usual. I hadn’t read this one, and although I’ve read quite a few historical books on post-war Britain, I don’t remember reading about the ambulance service. It sounds precarious (to put it mildly). It’s good to know that at least some things improved, although others seem to have got worse. Thanks for sharing the background. It puts the stories into context, for sure. Keep safe, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Olga. This was an early post that almost nobody read. (I think it had just six views) They might have understood the craziness of some of the other Ambulance posts if they had. 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.


  4. My best friends hubby was an EMT/paramedic back in the early 80’s prob 81/82 when Colin started he was there for a few years in total guessing must have been 10/15 yrs I can’t remember now 🙂 x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I trained in 79/80 then worked in the job until late 2001. Almost 22 years, and 20 of them at the same Ambulance Station in Ladbroke Grove. I left before my 50th birthday, as I was getting too old and worn out to carry on. 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete. x


  5. Great post, Pete, both in content and writing skill. Thanks for bringing it back,
    I certainly agree that nobody would put up with it for 5 years if it wasn’t a labor of love. My brother-in-law worked ambulance runs but not with all the baloney you had to put up with.
    Glad to hear things have changed for the better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Don. They have certainly improved in regard to training and equipment, also public perception of the job. But the staff still frequently work 12 hour shifts with no breaks, and the increase in paramedics using controlled drugs has made them much more ‘accountable’.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh this brings back memories Pete, especially regarding Fire Brigade, once went to RTA on elevated

    section M40 just above paddington fire station police were there we were there, no injuries and road

    was not blocked. Suddenly police asked if we called fire brigade. We had not but there were firemen

    wandering all over the carriageway, no fire engine though. We looked over the parapet to see the

    turntable fire engine pulled across the road below completely blocking it, a steady stream of

    firemen climbing up the ladder. Police officer found the fire officer who said they heard the crash and

    not having been called thought they would come up to take a look. The police officer abruptly said get

    off the motorway, move your fire engine or will be charged with obstruction of the highway, never seen

    firemen descend a ladder so quickly.

    In saying that, firemen used to get some pretty messy jobs, some of which I wouldn’t want to do.

    Attitudes seemed to change when we went into a more durable uniform (greens) and personally I

    found the gap between Ambulance and Fire closed considerably.

    Thanks for bringing up some great memories

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers, Bobby. There was a much better relationship with the Fire Brigade following the Ambulance Stike. They were very supportive of us during those months.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  7. (1) Did they ever sing “Waterloo” in the control room? I’m asking for an Abba fan.
    (2) Cinderella was known for poor relations.
    (3) “Smurfs, Water fairies, Window Cleaners, Yellow Trousers.” I once watched a blue Smurf wearing yellow trousers clean windows with fairy water. It was quite entertaining.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for steering me here; this was a tantalising taste of what I hope will be an even greater exploration of the emergency services in the 1980s. In the London of my childhood. I actually witnessed a crash in Holborn when I was about 5 (this would have been 1985) and remember the kindly paramedics; to think you might have been one of them! Oh Phil I’ve got a story for you, will email as it’s not fit for public forum, haha. Hugs, me x


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