Firefighters were required to help move dozens of seriously overweight people in a shocking example of the obesity crisis facing Northern Ireland’s health service.
Crews dealt with 30 call-outs across the province in the last year alone where specialist equipment was needed to deal with people weighing up to 40 stone.
They are among 160 obesity-related incidents involving the fire service during the past decade, with the number of call-outs rising alarmingly in recent years.
In one extreme case, firefighters helped a 70-stone pensioner using specialist lifting gear.
Other shocking examples included a 60-stone woman who required specialist help and a man weighing 49 stone who was moved to an ambulance by firefighters using slings and salvage sheets. Jim Wells, who is deputy chair of the Assembly’s health committee, said the incidents highlighted a huge issue in society.
“After smoking, obesity is the single biggest potential killer, yet it is an issue which we tend to laugh off,” he said.
“But the consequences of obesity include a vast increase in incidents of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
“Quite simply we are eating our way to an early grave.”
According to details released after a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph, more than half the 160 ‘bariatric’ incidents (obesity related) recorded in the last decade took place since 2009.
During 2011/12, fire crews attended 30 incidents at a cost of £83,000.
Among the most shocking cases in recent years was a 65-year-old pensioner weighing 70 stone who needed fire service assistance to be moved. The incident log from 2003 states: “65-year-old large male (approx 70 stone) removed by fire brigade and ambulance using ambulance chair”.
A “large male” weighing 49 stone was also moved to an ambulance with the aid of slings, salvage sheets and specialist handling by six firefighters. In a third case, a firefighter was injured helping to lift a “bariatric male” from the floor to his bed.
Mr Wells said he had recently been told about a 60-stone woman who had required help from the fire service.
“What you are seeing there are the worst examples of what is going on,” he added.
“There are many overweight people out there who we don’t see.
“It is a worrying trend. Two years ago a report by the Assembly showed that if we don’t tackle obesity, it could completely overwhelm the health service by 2025.”
Dr Marcus Stephan, the chief executive of the British Obesity Society, said the cases illustrated the detrimental effects of obesity.
A spokesperson for the Fire Service said bariatric incidents represented a small proportion of incidents attended.
“As an emergency service our role is to protect our community — and that means everyone within our community. We respond to people with a life risk, a threat to their health, or those who are in severe distress,” she said.
Last April it emerged nine ambulances in Northern Ireland had been modified to carry large passengers. They have been adapted to accommodate patients between 40 and 63 stone in weight.
Our obesity crisis: 10 shocking examples
- A 65-year-old male weighing 70 stone was removed by the fire brigade and ambulance staff using an ambulance chair. Five firefighters were involved in the incident.
- Five firefighters had to be deployed to help move a woman who weighed 36 stone from one hospital bed to another.
- A length of a hose had to be used by firefighters as a pully to free a man from a car. Five firefighters were involved.
- A “large male” weighing 49 stone was moved to an ambulance with the aid of slings, salvage sheets and specialist handling by six firefighters. Another four were on standby.
- A 60-year-old man weighing 25 stone-plus was moved by the fire service using a carrying sheet. The banister had to be cut away to allow the casualty to be removed.
- Fire crews assisted ambulance personnel with the removal of a 35-year-old man weighing 40 stone from his house to an ambulance using an improvised ramp. The house’s fence had to be removed and replaced.
- Six firefighters were tasked with helping to put a 37-stone female back into her bed. Another firefighter was put on standby during the incident.
- A firefighter was injured helping to lift a “bariatric male” from the floor to his bed using a salvage sheet in May 2011.
- A 27-stone female was removed from her wheelchair using a specialist lifting harness at a private clinic in Co Down
- A 14-year-old girl was found unconscious behind a toilet door. The fire service removed the door and used a specialist sling to assist the ambulance.
We must all bite the bullet and face reality
Instances of the Fire Service being asked to assist the ambulance service, and others, in the safe removal of patients is something that is growing right across the UK and much of the developed world, writes Dr Marcus Stephan
This demonstrates in the cold light of day some of the detrimental effects of obesity.
As a society we have to face up to some hard questions.
Do we just re-specify the specifications of ambulance trollies and lifting equipment, make airline seats twice as wide and reinforce beds to cope with an ever-increasing body mass? Or do we face up to the fact that many of us are overweight or moving towards obesity?
Certainly in the short-term we need to make sure that essential services are properly trained and equipped to deal with people of all shapes and sizes, but this sort of thing should serve as a wake-up call.
Generally speaking, we all eat too much and exercise too little — it’s as simple as that, but the myths continue to abound.
Many people think they can walk off a liquid lunch, or go to the gym for an hour. Unfortunately the reality is different.
A single Mars bar or equivalent takes around 45 minutes of continuous hard exercise to be ‘burnt off’, a single cheeseburger around an hour and a half for the average person.
The problem really seems to be that an awful lot of people just don’t seem to realise the amount of energy that they are consuming every day, and of course much of that is in the form of sugar and fat that is hidden in the foods we buy and eat.
Better labelling might help, education in schools about food certainly would, but we are fighting against a tide of consumer targeted advertising with a different agenda.
Our Olympic games are being sponsored by well known brands that once were perceived as luxuries or treats but now form the mainstay of many people’s diets.
It is difficult to manage such a competing range of messages.
Dr Marcus Stephan is chief executive of the British Obesity Society.