Capital cracks down on binge drinkers

TOM HUNT
Last updated 05:00 20/02/2012
Sam Owen, left, and Elizabeth Mos
MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ
HERE TO STAY: Medics Sam Owen, left, and Elizabeth Mos will be part of a permanent triage centre, operating on Friday and Saturday nights, to be set up in this building in Forresters Lane.

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Wellington partygoers so drunk they need medical help could find themselves visited by counsellors in a move to crack down on repeat binge drinkers.

The move is part of a plan to create a permanent base for a Wellington Free Ambulance triage centre near Courtenay Place, to operate on Friday and Saturday nights.

Ambulance events co-ordinator Ross Weddell said a deal was about to be signed with ACC to set up a triage centre for three years, with the first year funded entirely and reduced funding for the following two.

A trial triage ambulance stationed in Courtenay Place for three months late last year was so successful a decision was made to continue the service.

Now a permanent home is likely in Forresters Lane, off Tory St. Until that is finalised, the triage centre will continue to operate out of an ambulance stationed in Courtenay Place.

The ambulance service was having discussions with Wellington and Hutt hospitals, as well as alcohol and drug agencies, to share information on repeat heavy drinkers, Mr Weddell said.

They would then be visited by trained psychologists and alcohol counsellors. "People drinking to excess every fortnight – that is the type of person we are hoping to pick up. Because it is running for three years, we will actually see some really good results."

Some repeat patients had been noted during the three-month trial.

On Saturday night the ambulance was stationed in Courtenay Place and treated five people for drink-related issues. One man out celebrating a friend's 21st birthday was barely able to walk and was taken to hospital.

"An intoxicated patient is the most unstable person an ambulance person deals with," Mr Weddell said.

They were hard to communicate with, could turn violent, and choke by inhaling vomit.

Typically, Friday nights were busiest from 10pm to 2am, with office workers who started drinking at 5pm. Saturdays peaked later but "rock right through to 4am to 5am", Mr Weddell said.

Wellington Free Ambulance event medic Sam Owen, who regularly works in the Courtenay Place triage, said big events in Wellington, such as the sevens weekend and Rugby World Cup quarterfinals, put a lot of pressure on the service.

The big benefit of the permanent home would be the warmth, with the service often dealing with cold people who had underdressed for a night out.

Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said she was pleased the service was continuing as it contributed to central city safety at no cost to ratepayers.

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"It keeps people a bit worse for wear from over burdening A&E at Wellington Hospital. It would be great if it was not necessary, but it is."

Capital & Coast District Health Board alcohol specialist Geoff Robinson applauded the action being taken to address excessive alcohol use, but said having the triage centre in Courtenay Place almost condoned drinking. "What message does it give? That drinking is so OK, that we will dedicate an ambulance?"

ACC public injury insurance manager Sacha O'Dea said the goal of the triage operation was to increase safety and reduce admissions to Wellington's emergency department.

In the three-month trial, funded with $17,000 from ACC, 114 people were seen by Wellington Free Ambulance.

"Seventy-two per cent of presentations were related to alcohol, including alcohol intoxication, falls, assault, lacerations and trauma," she said.

ACC was getting involved in the extended triage centre because more than 20 per cent of injuries involved alcohol as a contributing factor. The highest frequency of alcohol-related injuries was between midnight and 6am on Saturdays and Sundays.

"This centre provides an opportunity to intervene with high-risk drinkers to prevent future alcohol-related injuries and there may also be direct savings in ACC claim costs, if people can be treated at the scene and do not need to be transported to hospital."

The cost of running the centre for three years was still being finalised, she said.

The Forresters Lane centre will open in six weeks and has been given for free for at least the first year by the building's owner. An ambulance would remain in Courtenay Place.

- Wellington

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