A safety review by London Ambulance in response to growing violence against the emergency services is also considering reverting to a two-tone siren. New ambulances are being equipped with the same US-style wailing sirens as police vehicles. A Prevention of Violence working group has been set up with the crews' union Unison after a number of incidents where staff have been threatened with weapons.
A staff representative said: 'The police are trained to deal with violence in a way we are not. Many of the crews think it's important to emphasise the difference between the two services. There's no doubt that the job has become more dangerous in recent years. I know of one incident where a gun was waved at an ambulance crew attending an emergency in Piccadilly Circus.'
A survey by the union over six months last year showed that 138 assaults were made on staff: 48 verbal, 18 physical and 72 both.
Bullet-proof vests are available, but only the service's 12 rapid response units are regularly equipped with body armour. There are no plans to make them generally available.
Unlike in Manchester where flak jackets are subject to a full trial by crews working in troublespots such as Moss Side and the city centre, London crews are not convinced about introducing the widespread use of body armour.
Many fear it could provoke confrontation or lead to crews being expected to take bigger risks because they are better protected.
Drivers' representatives want extra training to help staff avoid or defuse confrontations. At present they receive two hours on 'human awareness' courses run by LAS.
Union leaders believe more extensive training is required to help members with self-defence. They have also suggested that specialist external instructors be brought in.
The working party, set up a year ago, is expected to report within the next two months.
The LAS is planning to introduce personal radios for staff. At present drivers are powerless to communicate with headquarters once they are away from vehicles.
One driver said: 'Many of us think the radios are a must. It's no joke walking round some London estates at 3 o'clock in the morning on your own with no means of outside contact.'
No date has been set for the introduction of the radios, but a number companies have been approached about supplying equipment.
Extensive trials are envisaged because equipment will have to function both in high density urban areas as well as more open spaces on the outskirts of the city. They are expected to have panic buttons to summon assistance in dangerous situations.
'HE WENT BERSERK, SCREAMING AND FIGHTING'
As Mike manoeuvred his ambulance deftly through the streets of west London, a sudden tirade of abuse erupted from the back of the vehicle. A quick glance into his rear-view mirror told him his crewmate, Ken, was being attacked. Mike pulled-up sharply and called for help.
Minutes earlier the two ambulancemen had made what seemed like a routine pick-up at Shepherd's Bush Tube station in West London.
A police officer had handed over a man who had started to shake violently while waiting for a train. The patient had seemed docile at first. Shortly after the ambulance had got underway, all that changed.
'He went berserk - shouting and screaming and fighting with Ken,' said Mike whose name, like that of his crew-mate, has been changed. 'I stopped the ambulance and called for assistance. When the police finally turned up it took seven of them to nick this bloke. He was a complete nutter.'
Both men were shaken. Ken took several days off sick.
'There's no doubt the job's getting more dangerous,' said Mike. 'And it's not just the violence - it's the lack of general respect.'
This is not the first time Mike has feared for his safety. An emergency call-out at the scene of a stabbing outside a pub in Notting Hill is still engraved on his mind.
As he got out of his cab an angry crowd dragged him unceremoniously to the victim. 'One of them told me he had a knife and that if we didn't get his mate to hospital on the double, I would be for it.' He and the other crew member were then manhandled back to their vehicle. 'We didn't even have time to close the ambulance doors before we drove off.'Reuse content