A “frightening” rise in attacks on ambulance staff means body-worn cameras are now necessary, a member of the Stormont health committee has warned.
The number of incidents has increased significantly in the last two years, figures show.
They include physical attacks and threats, verbal abuse, psychological abuse and sexual assault.
The figures were obtained by SDLP MLA Colin McGrath, who is putting together a response for a consultation on whether NIAS staff should be fitted with body-worn cameras.
Mr McGrath, who sits on the health committee, said it was disturbing to have reached a stage where they were needed, but feels there is no other option.
He said he was deeply concerned at the increase in attacks on emergency crews.
According to NIAS figures, assaults reached a five-year high in 2020/21 with 629 recorded — almost two a day on average.
In the nine months from April to December 2021, more than 500 further incidents were recorded.
Mr McGrath, a South Down MLA, said: “The commitment our paramedics and ambulance staff continue to show on a daily basis is inspiring.
“We have seen how they have been on the frontline of our health response while our health service has been at crisis point for years, long before the pandemic.
“The dire situation in our hospitals has only been amplified in the last two years as Covid-19 has devastated our communities.
“Alongside the multitude of challenges they are already facing, we have witnessed a significant increase in assaults on paramedics and ambulance staff.
“This spiked significantly in 2020/21 with 629 assaults taking place and in 2021/22 there have already been 528 assaults on our staff.
“I am concerned at the trajectory of these incidents and we must remember that behind every one of these statistics is a person who has been attacked and a family that must pick up the pieces.”
Mr McGrath said those on the frontline of the health service should never be subjected to any form of threat or violence.
He added: “This is intolerable and cannot be allowed to continue in this vein. It is important to note that these assaults often result in psychological harm and many staff who have been assaulted are reporting that this damage can last many years after such an incident.
“The ripple effect from this results in staff being forced to take time off and our health service being put under additional strain. Ambulance staff then cannot physically provide the service they would like and which the public deserve.
“Careers have been ruined with people forced to leave their chosen profession and our health service has lost vital staff.”
Last year, the NHS in England announced it was rolling out body-worn cameras because of a rise in staff attacks.
It came as figures showed 3,569 ambulance staff were physically assaulted in England in 2020 — 30% more than five years ago. In England, staff wear the cameras and are able to press a button to start recording if patients or the public become aggressive or abusive, with filming made available to police where needed.
Mr McGrath said it was time to consider a similar move here.
“There is currently a proposal to see ambulance staff provided with body-worn cameras,” he added.
“It is frightening that we have reached the stage where this is required, but I believe it is a necessary step. It might make people think twice about how they treat our NIAS staff and would assist in prosecuting those who commit offences.
“We must totally condemn this violence in all its forms and as long as staff continue to be subjected to such attacks we must provide them with every protection necessary.”
Last month the head of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) Michael Bloomfield said violent attacks on paramedics are now so common that health bosses are looking at introducing stab vests and body-worn cameras.
He told the Stormont health committee: “We are exploring the use of body-worn videos and will be looking at how we might take that forward in the coming months. We are also looking at pilots using stab vests.
“There are around 400 to 500 incidents a year… and the impact that has, on some staff they are able to return to work quite quickly, for others clearly it causes the real fear.
“We have a small number of staff, who after incidents like that, are unable to return to work, sometimes because of physical reasons, much more often because of the mental reasons.”