The new green overalls.
Not long after the National Ambulance Strike, the London Ambulance Service decided to introduce a new style of uniform for all operational staff. Despite protests from most of us, they settled on a one-piece overall, in a lime green colour. To an outsider, this may have seemed a sensible idea, driven by practicality. To the staff who had to wear it, it just seemed cheap, demeaning, and uncomfortable. This dislike was not helped by the fact that in London, many dustcart operatives and street cleaners, wore the exact same item of clothing, sourced from the same manufacturer. It was also synthetic, making it exceptionally cold to wear in winter, and unbearably hot in the summer. The one piece design, with a full-length zip, made going to the toilet tricky; and for female staff, this also necessitated complete removal of the overall, which was very inconvenient.
There were some plus points. Unlike the previous shirt/jacket/trousers combination, it didn’t need ironing. It could be washed and dried in a very short time too, with no chance of shrinking, or unsightly creasing. It also guaranteed that all operational staff were dressed the same, and easily identifiable as Ambulance Staff (or dustmen) from a distance. It was less official in appearance, and less confrontational as a result. There was no headgear, so the rarely worn formal caps could be discarded. We could also wear industrial style boots for the first time, as they had previously looked out of place with the dressier uniform that went before. The overalls had numerous pockets, on the chest, arms, and thighs, as well as slots on the sleeves, for scissors, small torches, and pens. The identifying logos and patches were sewn on, and easily distinguished. In theory, it seemed like progress.
The problem was that the material was just uncomfortable to wear. We had to be issued with white T-shirts to wear underneath, and long-johns, to combat the cold feeling on the legs. The short thin anorak supplied was not warm enough for cold weather, and too much for warm weather, so NATO-style pullovers were eventually issued too. There was some rebellion against wearing this new issue, myself included, and many chose to continue to wear the old uniform, resulting in a mixture of operational staff, clad in bits and pieces of either kit. The management soon tired of this, and our tactic of constantly returning the new uniform, stating faults, or sizing problems, was rapidly exhausted. An ultimatum was issued, and a date announced, after which the wearing of anything but the new overalls was to be considered a disciplinary offence. I had tried, and failed, so reluctantly donned the ridiculous jumpsuit.
On good days, when the weather was ‘just right’, and exertions were at a minimum, it seemed OK. Not having to iron it was a time-saver, and there were enough issued to have a clean suit every day. The numerous pockets came in handy, holding everything from a bottled drink, to a selection of bandages; and in my case proved to be ideal for a packet of 20 cigarettes, and a zippo lighter too. Once everyone was wearing them, they didn’t seem so bad, but I still felt like a road sweeper. Not that there is anything wrong with being a road sweeper, or a dustman for that matter, don’t get me wrong. It was purely a case of identity, and public awareness. That took a while, but they eventually got used to us turning up in ‘Kermit Green’. Once the weather warmed up, I really began to hate this polyester abomination. You could not cool down. Hospitals were swarming with ambulance crews, all of them having pulled the top of the suit down, tied the arms around the body, and appeared to be wearing T-shirts, with green trousers. So much for smartness and uniformity.
Then came an incident that changed my mind about these suits. After this, I never looked back, and no longer yearned for separate shirt and tie, smart trousers, and matching jacket. I was converted.
One early shift, not long after 9 am, we were called to Paddington Underground Station. This station has two branches, and we were sent to the Metropolitan Line entrance, a long way from the actual platforms and trains. The call was given as a ‘one under’, indicating that someone had fallen, or jumped, under a train. This is a relatively common occurrence in London, and I had been to many similar jobs before. On arrival, we saw that the Fire Brigade were already there, and we were soon joined by Transport Police, and London Underground Heavy Rescue. Staff on scene told us that the person was still under the train, and was not responding. It was a long way down, involving some steep stairs, so we took all our equipment with us, just in case. Arriving at the platform, we were overjoyed to see that the train had already been reversed away from the victim, saving us the unpleasant task of crawling under it. Staff told us that they believed that the person, a man in his twenties, was ‘well dead’, a phrase often used to indicate severe injury, from which there was no chance of recovery.
My colleague and myself joined some firemen and got down onto the tracks, as the strong electric current had already been switched off. A cursory examination showed that the man had sustained a massive head injury, with large parts of the scalp torn off, and an obvious broken neck. This left us with the relatively simple task of removing the body, and taking it to the mortuary at St. Mary’s hospital, a hundred yards away from the station. We first wrapped the man in a blanket, then tied straps around, to secure his limbs. This ‘parcel’ was then strapped into a rescue stretcher, a bamboo and canvas affair, called a ‘Neil-Robertson Stretcher’. This had rope handles top and bottom, as well as grips at the sides, making it easy for a group of people to carry, and manipulate around bends, or obstructions. As the man was very tall, it did not fully encompass his frame, and part of his head, and most of his lower legs protruded out of the contraption. We then enlisted the help of the many firemen on scene, to help us carry the stretcher and our various pieces of equipment back upstairs to the ambulance.
I got up onto the platform first, so was handed the head end, which I supported until everyone was in place to commence ‘the carry’. In the new overall, I was unbearably hot, but unconcerned about the filthy state I had already got into; with the dirt, and grease from the track-well, and the congealed blood everywhere. In stages, we made our way upstairs, finally reaching the last flight out onto the street where the vehicle was parked. This was the steepest flight of stairs, but was nice and wide, so presented few problems. For some reason, the others helping us carry the stretcher decided to turn at the last bend. leaving me at the lower end, and to carry the man up feet-first. As they began to ascend the stairs, the top of his skull suddenly detached, swinging open like a cupboard door. As my right shoulder was supporting him at the time, the entire contents of his skull, thick blood clots, and most of his loosened brain matter, slipped out onto my collar, then ran freely down inside the new overall, all over my back and chest, finally collecting in a hideous mass in the baggy crotch area.
As you can imagine, I was not pleased. But this was where this new uniform showed its advantage. After quickly depositing the victim’s body at the mortuary, I was able to wipe out most of the gunk from inside the suit, and return to our base. The suit and T-shirt were deposited in a contaminated linens bag, my boxer shorts consigned to the bin, and after a quick shower, and a change of overall, a clean T-shirt, and improvising underwear with a pair of long-johns, I was able to continue with my shift. The shiny synthetic material had not allowed anything to soak in, and what was there, was easily removed. Had I been wearing the old style uniform, I would have been in a far greater mess, and a lot more uncomfortable.
There were other times that I welcomed the style of the new overalls, when kneeling in the rain or mud, for example. But it was always the incident at the underground station that confirmed the practicality of the previously hated one-piece suit.