Ambulance workers blame control centre

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

THE MAJORITY of London Ambulance Service (LAS) staff believe people are dying unnecessarily because of the way the capital's ambulances are operated.

Yesterday, as an extensive new survey disclosed revealed that 51 per cent of LAS staff believed the service was 'on the brink of collapse' and riddled with practices that threatened its life-saving role, the Department of Health acknowledged that the service 'was not up to scratch'.

As a result of the findings of the survey Going Critical, carried out on behalf of the GMB general union Health Secretary will put pressure on Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, will be under pressure to act in advance of the results of her department's own inquiry scheduled for publication later this year.

Among the findings of the report, The report found that 85 per cent of staff thought the ambulance control centre giving out crucial information to ambulance crews was 'inefficient at handling and giving out 999 calls'.

Addresses given to crews from the control centre were incorrect in 28 per cent of call-outs. Incorrect Details of patients' medical conditions were wrong in 48 per cent of cases.

Complaints also centred on working conditions, pay, overtime, fear of assault, lack of adequate counselling, the condition ofcriticisms of ambulance vehicles and the lack of a computer system to handle increasing demand.

John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB, said: 'Two years after the disastrous collapse of a new computer, and only three months after the Nasima Begum tragedy (who died after an ambulance failed to arrive for 53 minutes despite a series of calls from her family), the London Ambulance Service is still in crisis.'

Under the tenants of the patient's charter, ambulance crews are given the target of arriving at emergencies within 14 minutes. The LAS achieves only 68 per cent of calls within 14 minutes the worst service record in the UK.

the bottom of the UK's ambulance league table.

Mr Edmonds said: 'If the Government is serious about the Patient's Charter it should provide the resources.'

Although an additional 200 staff recently boosted numbers to about 3,000, there are regular shortages of front-line accident and emergency relief crews. are a regular occurrence. In 1986, premium rates for overtime were incorporated into salaries.

The LAS operates three shifts covering each 24 hours, across seven days. Beyond the normal 39-hour week, overtime is paid at a flat rate. Bank holidays are still paid at double time, and over-subscribed. Night shifts and weekends, when relief is most needed, are under-resourced.

High absenteeism and staff targeting their annual leave during 'unpopular shifts' results in ambulance shortages.

Andrew Brown, director of personnel at LAS, said: 'It is human nature. If you're down for a Sunday shift, you'll take leave then.' Mr Brown, who only recently joined the LAS from the food processing industry, said the continuous nature of manufacturing had a 'lot in common' with the ambulance service.

Eric Mason, a qualified ambulance person, said: 'The biggest shock in this report is that two years after the last critical survey, there has been so little progress.' He said LAS staff were under heavy stress. 'If people are worried about coming to work, that may well suggest why they take time off and avoid the most stressful shifts.'

The author of the report, Tristan Ravenscroft, an ambulance worker, said the new management team was failing to heed the warnings from its own the staff. over the quality of the service. He said: 'It takes a death for them to take any action . . . to improve the service and conditions for staff. The staff are extremely worried about the increase in violence and the poor condition of our vehicles. If you were offered one for pounds 150 as a hot-dog van you would think twice.'

The LAS's formal response to the survey was to dismiss it as a 'partial interpretation' by a specific group of staff.

Health minister, Tom Sackville, recently criticised LAS crews for adopting old-style union practices that he said resulted in not enough crews being available. Mr Mason, a branch official of the

GMB, said Mr Sackville had failed to recognise that most ambulance staff were there to help people. 'I'd like to say that the state of the LAS has not lost lives. But most of us know that is not the case. It is a tragedy that needs urgent attention.'