Peace is hell for Ulster 999 crews

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The Independent Online
Ambulance services in Northern Ireland face an unprecedented crisis following the outbreak of peace, with the number of emergency calls almost doubling after the republican and loyalist ceasefires last autumn.

A return to normality is largely to blame. Parts of Belfast that were "no-go" areas at night have become "socially active every night of the week", according to one ambulance man.

As a result, there has been an 85 per cent increase in "sudden illnesses in a public place", and a 50 per cent rise in the number of traffic accidents over the October to December period in 1993. Cardiac-related call-outs are up by 15 per cent. Overall, emergency call-outs rose by 82 per cent and have more than offset the benefits of the ceasefire.

Call-outs due to explosions fell by 94 per cent (from 18 to 1) and to shootings by 85 per cent (81 to 12) between October and December. However, ambulance staff saw more limb injuries - from 200 to 277 - partially attributable to a rise in punishment beatings.

Alan Murray, chief executive of the Eastern Ambulance Service, which covers most of Belfast, Co Down and a small part of Co Antrim, said last night: "At first we thought it was excess activity in the run up to the first post-ceasefire Christmas but it has continued.

"There was a 37 per cent rise [in emergency calls] last month compared with January 1994.

"Something is definitely going on and it is causing considerable concern that demand has not tapered off. It is becoming increasingly difficult to cope."

The Eastern Ambulance Service has dealt with 30,000 emergency calls so far in the April 1994 to April 1995 period - a rise of 4,000 cases (13 per cent) on the previous 12 months.

Mr Murray said: "It is quite unexpected. When the ceasefire happened, the Eastern Health and Social Services Board suggested some sort of `peace dividend' may be in order because they thought demand for ambulances would be less."