Calls for ambulance officers to work in pairs

JENNA LYNCH AND LIBBY WILSON
Last updated 05:00 17/01/2014
Waikato Times

Police are searching for the men who ambushed an ambulance assaulted the lone female officer and demanded drugs in Hamilton overnight.

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An "absolutely despicable" aggravated robbery of an ambulance crewed by a single officer has again prompted calls for ambulances to be staffed by at least two people at all times, but at a cost of $40 million a year, it will be a stretch.

The attacked officer was on her way to a call in Hamilton East after midnight on Wednesday when she was waved down by a man on Cameron Rd, seeking help for a man lying on the ground next to him.

But while the officer was attending to the man on the ground, two other men joined the group, assaulted her and forced her into her ambulance, demanding drugs.

While the men searched the ambulance, the victim alerted St John operations room and escaped.

St John central region general manager Eddie Jackson said the premeditated act was "absolutely despicable" and "a real wake-up call".

"Fortunately it's a very infrequent scenario which makes it all the more horrific when it does actually occur. I'm at a bit at a loss for words to actually express how I feel."

The officer was on leave and receiving support. The victim's colleagues and Mr Jackson admitted they were shaken by the incident. A review would determine where improvements could be made.

Mr Jackson said St John wanted all emergency ambulances to have a two-person crew but it was not possible at the moment. However, they would be "aggressively working towards improving that situation".

"It would be very significant in terms of dollars. We would be running into millions of dollars to have all ambulances with paid staff."

Detective Inspector Chris Page was also horrified at offenders "preying" on an officer of St John, who he said provided a service everyone in the community relied heavily on.

"How would they [the offenders] feel if that was one of their family who this ambulance was on the way to?" he said.

Interrupting an ambulance responding to a call was a "huge risk to life", he said, and ambulances did not carry the kind of drugs offenders wouldbe after.

Police were still establishing whether drugs had been taken from the ambulance, and working to identify the offenders.

They were described as four dark-skinned men aged around 18 to 19, and Mr Page urged anyone with information on the offenders to come forward.

The event is just another incident that supports the ambulance union's campaign for all ambulances to have at least two crew members said New Zealand Ambulance Association chairman, Mark Quin.

"We are extremely concerned that an ambulance officer has been assaulted in that way and it's further support for our campaign for double-crewing."

It had become common for sole ambulance officers to be faced with dangerous situations.

"Even with the best intentions, you can walk into a job with quite an innocent look to it from all the information received from the emergency calls and be faced with the complete opposite. Even the best of us can be caught out."

St John operations director, Michael Brooke, said ambulances were "full-crewed" 88 per cent of the time, but one of the objectives for this year was to raise the level to 100 per cent.

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But it will come at a cost.

The Waikato region has 84 paid staff and about 230 volunteer ambulance officers and St John estimates it will cost an extra $40m a year to ensure every ambulance in the country was full-crewed all the time.

It's a cost Hamilton-based Labour MP Sue Moroney said should be covered by government.

"It's actually shocking that in the fourth largest city in New Zealand we have single crewed ambulances, especially that late at night," she said. "I am really concerned that safety is being compromised by the need to cut costs."

But she made it clear St John was not to blame for its lack of resources.

"This is a government issue. . . It's a direct result of underfunding to health services."

Anyone with information on the aggravated robbery of the ambulance should ring Hamilton police on (07) 858 6200 or, to remain anonymous, call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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