A battlefield of damage and congestion

NICOLE MATHEWSON
Last updated 05:00 23/11/2013
St John
Stacy Squires

SLOW GOING: St John's ambulance staff are frustrated by road works, closed streets and 30kmh speed restrictions in Christchurch.

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Endless cones, safety fencing, road closures and road restrictions are pushing the city's emergency services to their limits. 

Wainoni paramedic David Miller is memorising the latest road closures and planning possible routes before his first job for the night comes through.

He sits in a temporary station in the middle of a major roadworks site on Pages Rd, right in the heart of Christchurch's hard-hit eastern suburbs.

Infrastructure repair sites dot almost every street and, even where the road is open, the plethora of safety fencing and cones create other challenges.

"The lane restrictions . . . make it impossible to park outside some houses or back in to a driveway," Miller says. "Worst-case, we have to park 250 metres away, carrying gear and pushing the bed."

St John general manager David Thomas and intensive care paramedic Carlton Irving are trying to show The Press how Christchurch's damaged roads, traffic congestion and extensive roadworks sites have become a battlefield for ambulance staff trying to reach people in need of emergency medical care.

It's not a difficult task given the city is currently home to about 200 active work sites, including about 50 in the central city.

"I don't want this to sound like we're bagging the city; it's just the consequence of 100km of road repairs," Thomas says.

The first emergency call comes through about 8.45pm: an elderly woman in Riccarton is having trouble breathing.

Irving hits the accelerator and zooms down Memorial Ave at 100kmh. It's one of the smoothest roads in the city post-quake and it would be impossible to drive so fast down most others.

"You go down [Moorhouse Ave] at 60km and you're just about airborne," Thomas says. "Kilmore St - it's so bumpy and humpy, you can't really get down there at any speed at the moment."

Neighbours had found the elderly woman lying on her floor after a fall. They don't know how long she's been there.

Boy racers begin to appear on the edges of the city centre as the sun goes down, having suddenly returned in droves about four months ago.

Thomas say the group generally do not cause problems for ambulance staff, but some drivers appear to forget there are rules.

One man fails to notice when the mostly one-way St Asaph St becomes two-way near Hagley Park and another person drives the wrong way on Lichfield St.

Irving pulls up beside the oblivious driver as she waits for the traffic lights to change colour.

"Do you know this is a one-way," he asks.

She smiles sheepishly and shakes her head.

"We tune out," Thomas says of Christchurch drivers post-quake.

"There's just so many signs, you don't bother to read them anymore."

Sometimes the cones don't stay where they should.

Miller says the contractor working outside his temporary station on Pages Rd has hired a security guard to monitor the site at night because people keep moving the cones to make the two lanes meet head-on.

It's now after midnight and Thomas drives to a service station on Riccarton Rd to grab a coffee.

Police officers decked out in full riot gear are stalking the street as the last lot of young people walk away from a party that's just been broken up.

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Irving says paramedics avoid such situations unless someone has been injured. The jeep carries a helmet just in case he's needed.

Thomas returns with his caffeine fix as another emergency call comes through. "Perfect timing," he grins.

This job is not far away and involves a young man who has attempted suicide.

It's not the first such job Irving has had to attend this week and the number seems to be growing.

"We all know the suicide figures, but what's not published is the attempted suicides."

A middle-aged woman in South Brighton collapses just after 2am.

It's a long drive from central Christchurch and it's made much harder by the poor road conditions on the way.

Communications staff say the woman's husband has begun CPR, but frustratingly, the ambulance cannot speed up and even has to slow for every traffic light - red and green - and every roadworks site featuring a 30kmh speed limit.

Despite it being an emergency, ambulances were not allowed to exceed temporary speed restrictions to ensure the safety of St John staff and roadworkers.

An ambulance crew from Bealey Ave meet us at the house. The paramedics work on the woman for 19 minutes before her heart starts beating again.

The ambulance drives painstakingly slowly back to the city. Any large bump could disrupt the equipment keeping the woman alive.

Her heart stops again after she arrives at hospital, but now it's up to the hospital's doctors.

Thomas says it's impossible to know how a patient's outcome is affected by the delays caused by Christchurch's roads, but every extra second it takes causes stress and frustration for St John staff.

"In an ideal world we would be able to put more vehicles on every day and every night shift, but there's . . . issues with that. We can put on extra vehicles but if they're not in the right place . . . it's a waste."

For now, St John staff will do their best to get to those in need as quickly, and as safely, as they can.

"It's easy to forget we are still in a disaster zone that's being rebuilt."

BY THE NUMBERS

ST JOHN

63 incidents a day on average

19,069 so far this year (as of October 30)

20,613 jobs in 2010 - 18,895 jobs in 2011 - 19,970 jobs in 2012 

ROAD WORKS

302 projects completed, totalling $201.8 million

$1.63b total value of work to be completed

42km of fresh water pipe laid so far, 60 per cent completed

200km wastewater pipe laid, 30 per cent completed

12km stormwater pipe laid, 45 per cent completed

279,576 square metres road pavement laid, 21 per cent completed

- The Press

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