As we sped to the Divis Tower in west Belfast with blue lights flashing and siren blaring I thought I was about to see a flurry of activity as paramedics treated a dangerously ill patient.
The reality, however, was quite different.
When we got to the scene an ambulance was parked outside, and soon after a paramedic came strolling out of the building and over to our car.
“When we arrived he answered the door and he had obviously been drinking,” he said.
“He claims he had a fit, but he’s no more had a fit than I have.”
The ambulance crew then spent another 10 minutes filling out paperwork before they were free to deal with other calls.
While you would imagine most people would regard this incident as a terrible waste of resources, sadly it is far from unique, as my night with paramedics responding to 999 calls proved.
It was not long before we were on our way to another call — this time to a nightclub in Belfast city centre to attend to a man who had dislocated his knee.
As we arrived we picked our way through the crowd of revellers and identified a young man sitting on a bollard holding his leg and clearly in pain.
While he obviously needed medical attention, it was not exactly an emergency in the true sense of the word — it certainly did not require two paramedics to speed to the scene in an ambulance and rush the injured man to hospital for treatment.
“I don’t know who called the ambulance,” said one of the paramedics.
“This guy has a history of dislocating his knee and doesn’t want to go to hospital tonight, so it may well have been the bouncers who called us.
“You do tend to get people that call us out just to cover their own backs.
“The thing is, while we are dealing with something like this we can’t leave to attend other calls until everything is sorted out here.”
After almost 45 minutes there, with all the necessary paperwork filled out, we were able to leave and almost immediately a call came through for an ambulance to attend a bar in west Belfast.
Again, with blue lights flash
ing and sirens on, we sped through the city to get to the scene of the emergency.
The police had called an ambulance to treat a man with a drink-related injury at a pub, but the request was cancelled en route.
Apparently the man had left the scene — so we were put back on alert — and the next call to come through was also from the police.
This time they wanted ambulance staff to treat an alcoholic man they had found lying in the street near St Anne’s Cathedral.
When we got there we found a man in his 30s with cuts to his knees and hands.
The paramedics placed a blanket around his shoulders while they put some plasters on his cuts.
He was a sorry sight, but certainly not by any stretch of the imagination a medical emergency.
So, what do the people on the frontline dealing with these calls think about this very obvious drain on the service?
One of them said: “To be hon
est, it has just become part of the job, so you don’t say anything.
“You get called out for all sorts, it’s ridiculous. You get called out because someone has period pain or toothache. You name it, we get called out.
“Then there are people who are bored or lonely. There is one guy in Bangor who phones for an ambulance up to 40 times a day.
“We get called out to Newtownards or Bangor and bring the person to the Ulster Hospital.
“Once we get there they jump out of the ambulance and head across to Ballybeen for a party or to go home.
“You even get people phoning for an ambulance and get taken to hospital, and it turns out they only want to visit someone in a ward.”
It was clear from many of the calls we attended during my night with paramedics that much of their work is generated by people who are drunk.
This was certainly the experience of many of the paramedics I met.
One Northern Ireland Ambulance Service crew member, who has worked as a paramedic for almost two decades, said: “We definitely see a lot more people because of drink and drugs.
“We get a lot of calls to nightclubs and pubs, and younger people who are out of it.
“On one occasion we went to a report of three unconscious males at the nightclub who were supposed to have taken the drug GHB.
“When we got there, two were lying there but we couldn’t see the third guy, so went looking for him and found a man carrying him down an alleyway.
“If we hadn’t got there when we did, he would have been raped.”
How thugs and time-wasters are putting an intolerable strain on overstretched 999 crews
Northern Ireland’s Ambulance Service is being stretched to the limit — with violent attacks on staff and time-wasters taking their toll.
Paramedics responded to more than 21,000 calls for an ambulance over a 12-month period which were deemed to be neither life-threatening nor serious, according to recent figures.
This equates to an average of 58 calls a day — or 16% of call-outs attended by paramedics between April 2011 and March 2012.
It can also be revealed there were 226 reported attacks on Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) staff in 2011 — highlighting the shocking level of abuse paramedics endure.
The figures have exposed the alarming and needless strain being placed on a life-saving service struggling to cope amid budget cuts and A&E closures and prompted calls for a zero tolerance approach to time-wasters.
NIAS breaks down calls for ambulances into three categories to help them respond appropriately.
Category A calls are immediately life-threatening situations, category B are for serious but not life-threatening situations, and category C refers to calls where there is no immediate threat to life and the patient is not in serious danger.
One paramedic said: “With category C calls, it is basically, why are you ringing us?” Figures provided by NIAS show there were 45,714 category A calls between April 2011 and March this year, 65,538 category B calls during the
same period and an astonishing 21,195 category C calls during the last financial year.
NIAS staff have reported being called to deal with people who are suffering from toothache and period pain.
“I have been called out to a house because a woman couldn’t get her wedding ring off and she wanted us to cut it off,” said one.
Jim Wells, chair of the Stormont health committee, said: “People really are going to have to be forced into a position where they cannot abuse the health service.
“I wouldn’t be averse to fining people who deliberately waste the time of the Ambulance Service.
“The Health Minister is already giving consideration to charging people who turn up at A&Es when they don’t need treatment, and I think this should be extended to ambulances as well.
“Clearly people who use ambulances as a taxi service or ring 999 because they have toothache are wasting a very valuable resource and they shouldn’t get away with it. They are putting lives at risk as well.
“It is all very well for the person getting a lift in an ambulance to Dundonald, but what about the person lying in a ditch after a car crash in Comber?
“I view this as seriously as hoax calls to the Fire Service and we prosecute people for this, so I don’t see why the same can’t happen with people who waste the time of our paramedics.
“It really is a ridiculous drain on resources.
‘I went to help the woman... she broke my nose’
A paramedic relates the reality of life on the 999 frontline. At his request, he is speaking anonymously
“On one occasion we went to a nightclub in Belfast to deal with a female who was supposed to have been suffering a fit.
“When we got there the woman was alert, but you could tell she had been drinking.
“I don’t think she’d had a fit but we decided to take her to hospital just to have her checked out.
“We got her into the ambulance to take her up to the Mater Hospital and on the way she was alert and chatting to her friend, but when we arrived she suddenly looked like she was unconscious.
“It looked like she was putting it on so when we pulled up outside the A&E, I went to help her to her feet and she suddenly lashed out and headbutted me in the face, breaking my nose in the process.
“My colleague and security guards from the hospital helped me and we managed to get her under control, but in the process she lashed out at my colleague who ended up getting kicked in the legs.
“I had to be treated in A&E and wasn’t able to work for the rest of the night.
“I have no idea why she attacked me, but it’s not the first time something like this has happened.
“I’ve worked for the Ambulance Service for almost 20 years and it’s definitely got worse.
“These kinds of incidents pretty much go with the job these days.
“You never know what is going to happen when you go to a call, and you always have to be ready for something like that to happen.”
“We have to find another £200m of savings this year, so it is very annoying to hear of such blatant examples of waste.”