Emergency workers find themselves in firing line

TOM HUNT AND MICHAEL FORBES
Last updated 05:00 17/07/2014

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Emergency workers on their way to help others are finding themselves under attack.

Police are most at risk, followed by ambulance officers, but the public are also being put in danger, as an incident in Wellington on Tuesday night highlighted.

Wellington Free Ambulance operations team manager Mark Shakespeare said an ambulance was speeding, with lights and sirens on, to help a patient with chest pains in Stokes Valley, Lower Hutt. Paramedics heard two loud bangs and saw the windscreen crack, forcing them off the road.

"They got out and that's when an aggressive-looking man emerged from the undergrowth and admitted to throwing the rocks before running off . . . they said he was quite agitated," Shakespeare said. "The paramedics were delayed a few minutes but fortunately there was enough vision left in the windscreen for them to continue their job and get their patient to hospital.

"A couple of inches lower and the entire windscreen would've been completely smashed."

Police were notified but the paramedics did not get much of a look at the rock-thrower. "No one got hurt on this occasion, but if the person suffering chest pains had been having a full-blown heart attack, then it could've been quite serious. We don't have the time to spare on this sort of thing."

St John, which runs most of the country's ambulances has had an average of 35.5 assaults on officers each year for the past nine years. Until the end of June this year, there were 25 assaults. Operations director Michael Brooke said staff were encouraged to report assaults so it was pleasing to see a decrease.

St John had a zero-tolerance approach to assaults on staff, who were "considerate, non-judgmental professionals who are there to help the sick and injured".

Wellington Free Ambulance operations team manager Geoff Proctor said assaults on staff were unusual, but when they happened they could be serious. There were eight reported assaults last year, 13 in 2012, and 15 in 2011.

Those who assaulted staff or attacked ambulances put lives at risks, he said. They prevented ambulances getting to jobs, could injure paramedics and put strain on the service's finances.

According to police, 1763 officers were assaulted in the 2012-13 year. That was a 29 per cent drop since five years earlier. Each year since had seen a decrease.

A police spokesman said any attack on emergency service staff "who are going about their jobs trying to help the public" was a concern.

The drop in assaults was partly due to body armour, more tactical training, safety alarms and more access to Tasers and guns. "While the reality of all policing situations is that they can escalate very quickly and unpredictably, any assault on our staff is not acceptable."

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But firefighters are seemingly immune to attacks. National operations manager Stu Rooney said there were no reports of any injuries from assaults for the past five years.

"Firefighters work in crews of four or more and wear heavily padded protective clothing, so I suspect they are not as vulnerable a target as other emergency service workers."

- The Dominion Post

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