Easington MP Grahame Morris condemns increased violence and aggression towards local ambulance crews following the announcement that all frontline North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) staff will be offered body worn cameras to protect them against attacks.
All NEAS vehicles are fitted with CCTV cameras, but with two thirds of incidents happening away from a vehicle, the service was keen to protect staff further.
NEAS was the first ambulance service to trial body worn video cameras in 2018 with around 40 members of frontline staff.
Following this trial, the Trust was successful in a funding bid from NHS England to purchase a further 160 cameras last year and has now received funding to purchase a further 200, meaning every ambulance station in the region will now have access to a camera.
So far this year, the service has already recorded 252 violence and aggression incidents, ranging from verbal abuse to physical assault.
Alcohol remains the single largest contributory factor, followed by mental health and drug misuse. The day or time of the week does not appear to be a factor in assaults, with recent data showing staff are as likely to be attacked on a Tuesday as they are on a Saturday.
Easington MP Grahame Morris has been calling for the courts to make better use of their sentencing powers to protect frontline emergency workers. Following NEAS announcement on body-worn cameras, he said:
“It is a sad day when emergency workers, whose vocation is saving lives are confronted with violence and abuse. There is a systemic flaw in our society when such unacceptable behaviour is normalised and seen as part of the job.
The North East Ambulance Service should be commended for taking a proactive approach to staff safety. However, it is disappointing they have had no option but to make body worn cameras available due to rising violence and abuse.
Paramedics are our neighbours, friends and family, and an attack on them is an attack on the whole community. Our courts and criminal justice system are failing to protect emergency workers, and while increased sentences would be welcome, it is clear the court should do more with the sentencing power available to them.
The Government need to take responsibility for the breakdown in law and order. While reversing some of the police cuts is welcome, it clear that a decade of funding cuts, weakening the police, courts and prison service has failed to protect the public.
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Darren Green, clinical services manager at NEAS, said: “Staff safety is one of our highest priorities; if we are unable to protect our staff, we are unable to provide a service that’s fit for purpose for the public we serve.
“Nobody comes to work to be abused, but especially not when they are here to help people; often the people abusing them are the very people who called them for help.
“We’ve all had an incredibly tough year but sadly abuse on our staff has continued to increase, meaning these cameras are needed more than ever.
“As well as providing evidence to support criminal convictions, the cameras can also often de-escalate a situation, thereby preventing an assault from the taking place in the first place. They also provide staff with a greater confidence when faced with a challenging or risky situation.
“The availability of body worn cameras for our staff is something that we have championed for a long time and so we are delighted to have led the trial to help implement them nationally.
“We will continue to work on measures to reduce assaults and liaise with police colleagues to ensure action is taken following any criminal acts against staff or the Trust. We encourage all valuable NHS colleagues not to tolerate such behaviour.”
Gateshead based paramedic Gary McCaughey, who regularly uses the body cameras on shift, said: “It gives you a little more comfort in the fact that if anything does happen you’re able to record it, but it definitely acts as a deterrent – you can physically see the situation de-escalate when you tell the person you’re activating it.”
Hartlepool-based paramedic Tony Traynor added: “It focuses minds; I’ve warned people that I’m about to turn it on twice and each time they’ve changed their behaviour. A lot of the time it can be a case of he said, she said but the cameras provide that video evidence that they can’t argue against.”
The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 allows courts to impose a maximum of 12 months in prison and/or unlimited fine on anyone found guilty of assaulting a police officer, firefighter, prison officer or paramedic. A bill is currently going through Parliament to double this sentence to 24 months.
NEAS successfully campaigned last year as part of the national consultation to double the maximum sentence to two years imprisonment, where it called on courts to use the full powers already available to them to ensure sentencing acts as a deterrent as well as a punishment.
Assaults – both physical and verbal – can have a lasting impact on staff, ranging from marriage breakdowns to leaving the profession altogether.
There is also a wider cost to the service in terms of repairs and time lost to staff sickness. On reviewing just 41 cases between April 2017 and October 2019, the service lost 411 days to staff sickness at a cost of £141,824 in overtime costs to cover missed shifts following an assault. In addition, the cost of recruiting and training replacements for those staff who have left ranges between £20,000 and £30,000 per person depending on the role and clinical skills needed in the post.
Footage obtained in the event of an assault or abuse will be admissible as evidence in a court of law. It will only be used for the purposes of providing evidence to the police in any enquiry intended for the health, safety and protection of staff.