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.

2 thoughts on “Ambulance life

  1. 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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