Last year, Channel 4 cameras followed the work of police, fire and ambulance staff in Blackpool to reveal modern Britain through the eyes of the emergency services.
Now the series returns, but this time its focus is on the emergency service that gets to know us most intimately: the ambulance service. The new series follows ambulance staff across the country who know that every 999 call they race to could be a matter of life or death.
This compelling six-part series reveals how Britain is in more desperate need of help than ever before and that the ambulance service is under huge pressure, with 11 million emergency calls a year and an ambulance dispatched every five seconds at an average cost of £250.
It follows cases from the moment the 999 calls are received, as ambulances are dispatched and the paramedics arrive on the scene. But it also goes beyond to explore why the call was made and find out what happened after the medics left.
Every call out has the potential to change lives forever. Some are medical emergencies, such as heart attacks, accidents and stabbings. But others are more complicated - suicide attempts, self-harming and alcohol or drug abuse – and the result of mental health problems and deep-seated social issues.
Paramedics and call handlers speak powerfully and frankly about the challenges they face (and the Britain they see), while patients and their loved ones reveal the story behind their call for help.
Time and time again, it is falling to the ambulance service to address social, as well as medical, problems. The series reveals how paramedics are now having to act as counsellors, social workers and even friends to those in need.
The series shows how the ambulance service is having to pick up the pieces of a society that appears to be at breaking point in these tough times, including: the growing number of people battling with mental health issues, whose care accounts for an ever-increasing amount of ambulance staff's time; the realities of living with addiction to drink and drugs, affecting a far wider range of the population than usually acknowledged, from young to old and rich to poor; the struggles of ‘coming of age’, from knife crime to excessive drinking; and the challenges of caring for a rapidly-aging population.
Series Editor: David Hodgkinson
Series Producer: Ally Roberts
Exec Producers: Simon Ford, Ed Coulthard
Production Company: Blast! Films
The fifth programme focuses on the older generation, who now account for two thirds of ambulance calls. With 11 million people in Britain over the age of 65, the NHS is feeling a greater strain than ever before. In the wake of significant cuts to the social care budget, if we want them to live independently for as long as possible the ambulance service have to step in.
Some of the personal stories in this film also offer an insightful, touching and sometimes humorous take on life for old people today.
Essex paramedic, Jamie Rickard estimates that: “On a day to day basis, if you do eight jobs, at least six or seven of them will be elderly people.”
In Nottingham, paramedic Dave Seaton is dispatched on blue lights to the home of an 86-year-old woman who has collapsed. Her husband of 63 years watches on whilst the ambulance crew fight for her life - and he contemplates one without her.
“It doesn’t matter what age they are, to go and tell someone that there is nothing more you can do, that there are no signs of life, it’s the worst job in the world. With a lot of us, your emotion comes afterwards.” says Dave.
With 10,000 old people suffering a fall every day, it is the ‘bread and butter’ of the ambulance service’s work and costs the NHS £1.6 billion a year. In Essex, paramedics Mike Foster and Anna Tansley are called to an 84-year-old woman who has alerted them via the emergency button she wears round her neck, in order to remain in her own home. Meanwhile, in London paramedics Tommy Lemon and Jo Pugsley require police assistance to smash the window of a hard-of-hearing resident who has accidentally set her emergency button off in her sleep.
“At the moment, it’s all about keeping people in their own home.” says paramedic Mike Foster. “They don’t always want our help because no-one wants to lose their independence.”
“To think that I could step in when someone has been on the floor for however long and you can get them back into bed is nice. That you’ve done something and that you were there when no-one else was.” says Emergency Care Assistant, Anna Tansley.
Paramedic, Selina Conway, is called to sheltered accommodation in Nottingham where she discovers an elderly gentleman who is struggling to safely get to the toilet in time. With two thirds of councils commissioning 15 minute care visits for patients like him, she is frustrated to discover that his carers are unable to deliver any basic care beyond dispensing his medication.
“Fifteen minutes is unachievable” says Selina. “Bathing somebody, showering somebody, even making somebody’s breakfast – just making the breakfast can take 15 minutes.”
The series that reveals modern Britain through the eyes of our ambulance staff continues. This episode focuses on call outs to patients fighting for life and the medical, ethical and emotional challenges their care creates, not just for the paramedics, but also for the friends and family who may be left behind.
Sixty thousand people go into cardiac arrest every year in the UK. The ambulance service treat 30,000, but only 10% of those survive. The ambulance service is working to increase the survival rate through prompt action and education about CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).
In Nottingham, Selina Conway is dispatched to a 76-year-old man who's been found collapsed in his front garden by a stranger. CPR is the only solution. In Essex, Sadie Bentley and recently qualified Anna Tansley are called by the coastguard to help resuscitate a man found floating in the sea. Jamie and Neil help a 94-year-old woman who has terminal cancer and only days to live. The medics want her to have the best quality of life possible and a dignified death.
Back in Nottingham, Liam Wakefield heads to an 18-year-old who's had a seizure and stopped breathing. He finds the patient in a hospital bed in his living room. After talking with the patient's mother, he discovers this is a family living in the midst of an unfolding tragedy. And, seeing death regularly as they do, the medics gain a refreshing and sometimes humorous take on something that will eventually happen to all of us.
Dir: Chris Rowe
This episode follows paramedics as they do their best to help patients with mental health problems – with one in four of us facing such issues at some point in our lives, it's become the job of the emergency services to pick up the pieces. But with an ambulance dispatched to a mental health call every thirty seconds, the medics are often facing complex and difficult situations for which they have little training.
“It has increased to the point where I would say one job every shift at least is a mental health issue - whether it is self-harm, overdoses, suicide attempts – it’s a regular part of out work,” says paramedic Maria Stanley. “People are crying out for help, but we’re not mental health workers, we’re just there to deal with the physical aspects of people’s health.”
Maria is called to a multi-storey car park in Nottingham where she is first on the scene and has to talk a suicidal man away from the edge. “We don’t know what’s happened in their lives prior to us meeting them, we don’t know what situations they’ve been in, what they’ve had to live with,” says Maria. “All we can do is deal with the situation as it arrives.”
The call handlers at the end of the 999 calls are struggling to cope with the rise in cries for help, says Jess Law: “We get self-harmers every day, we get overdoses every day, we get panic attacks every day – just people who are struggling to live with day to day life.”
In London, Kirsten Harper and Amy Siddall race to help a man who’s having suicidal thoughts and whose daughter can’t cope. But it’s hard for the paramedics to offer a solution.
“It’s very frustrating. We go to someone that’s having a heart attack, we can treat that,” says Kirsten. “We go to someone having a stroke, we can do something about that. We go to someone with a broken arm, we can sort their pain out. We then go to someone who’s suffering suicidal thoughts or they’re feeling depressed, there’s no magic cure for that.”
In Essex, another patient, Martyn, has heard imaginary voices most of his life and is threatening suicide with the paramedics in attendance. He’s at breaking point, but Martyn says that mental health services told him he’s ‘not crazy enough’ to get treatment. This time, it’s Mark Rowley and Sadie Bentley who have to try to talk him through his crisis.
“You see a broad range of all sorts of ailments and problems, whether it be from a cut finger to the trauma, the cardiac arrests, the drownings, electric shocks,” says Mark. “But mental health is absolutely the most difficult job we get sent to.”
Meanwhile self-harming has become one of the most prevalent mental health issues, with one in twelve young people in the UK now self-harming. In Nottingham, Selina Conway is called out to help a man who's been cutting his arm. He’s depressed and has been on over twenty ambulances in his lifetime.
And in London, crews are called to help when a failed suicide bid has left a middle-aged man trapped under a London underground train. “For us to have an interesting shift, someone has to have a pretty awful day. And you don’t really wish that on anyone,” says one paramedic.
Dir: Matt Pelly
This week’s programme demonstrates alcohol’s shocking ability to destroy the lives of drinkers and those closest to them, as well as the wider effect on society. There are 1.6 million people dependent on alcohol in the UK and alcohol misuse directly costs the NHS a staggering £3.5bn a year, with admissions to hospital due to drinking doubling in the last ten years.
The film reveals how alcohol is being abused by some people who really should know better: with middle aged, middle class professionals just as at risk of ending up in an ambulance thanks to drink as the young and irresponsible out on the lash or long-term alcoholics.
“The problem transcends class,” says 999 call handler Lyn Scillitoe.“Just because they’re drinking a forty quid bottle of wine doesn’t make them any better to someone drinking White Lightning. The only difference is the amount of money they’re able to spend.”
In some parts of the country, twenty percent of ambulance callouts are alcohol-related, but London paramedic Tommy Lemon reports that on certain weekends three-quarters of his patients have been affected by booze: whether that’s a patient who’s intoxicated and comatose, someone involved in a drunken fight or fallen down, or people with long-term alcohol problems.
Sometimes ambulance crews are called simply because the patient is too drunk to remember where they live, let alone possess the ability to get home in a taxi.
On the streets of London, paramedics Tommy Lemon and Jo Pugsley are called to assist a man who’s had so much to drink he’s become incontinent – covering not just himself in urine and faeces, but the paramedics and the ambulance too. Far from being a student out to party, this is a well-dressed, middle-aged executive.
From receiving the 999 call to making the ambulance available again to the public takes three hours – taking the businessman to hospital, cleaning the ambulance and the crew showering and changing their clothes - well over the one hour average.
Tommy and Jo are then called to a central London pub where a middle-aged woman has passed out, having spent the day at Ascot races and rather overdoing it.
She’s lost her handbag and her friends have left. While she doesn’t require medical attention, the paramedics cannot leave her to get home on her own. Instead they take her to the tax-payer funded Soho Alcohol Recovery Centre, colloquially known as the ‘Drunk tank’, to sober up, along with scores of others who are often so drunk they’re covered in their own vomit and other bodily fluids. Not that she’s happy to be seen in the company she is now keeping.
But ambulance crews don’t just deal with patients who have had a night on the tiles. In Nottingham, paramedics Liam Wakefield and Melissa Jackson are called out to help Scott, a 28-year-old from a loving middle-class family who’s become a chronic alcoholic.
Scott tells us he was once a promising dentistry student at the top of his class and was well on the way to earning £90,000 a year. But when he started drinking up to six litres of cider a day, his life spiraled downwards and he’s battling bankruptcy, crippling mental health problems and life-threatening seizures when he tries to go cold turkey. In the last year alone he’s been taken to hospital by ambulance at least ten times. He has begun self-harming to dull the pain.
But Scott desperately wants to turn his life around: “I’m 28 now, so it’s been ten years of drinking and that can’t do good for your body,” he says. “I’m too young to die I think. I might drink, but I don’t want to die.”
Meanwhile paramedic Michelle Broughton is called out to a woman who’s having a seizure after drinking two litres of cider. When she arrives, the medics find Annette in the grips of a major psychotic episode brought on by chronic and long-term alcohol abuse which has left her family devastated. Despite being a paramedic with many years’ experience, Michelle has never seen the effects of alcohol demonstrated in such an extreme way.
Director: Storm Theunissen
The first film in the series explores the call-outs that bring ambulance crews face-to-face with the struggles of becoming an adult in modern Britain.
Like previous generations, today’s young people are experimenting with alcohol, taking risks and getting into scrapes with their mates. But the work done by the ambulance service reveals how young people are facing bigger challenges than ever before.
Ambulance crews are seeing an increasing number of stabbing victims as people resort to knives, rather than their fists, to settle arguments.
In the Essex seaside town of Southend, Anna Potter and Jess Kyle are called to help a 20-year-old man who’s bleeding heavily after being stabbed multiple times. But Anna and Jess have to wait for police back up before they can attend.
With multiple wounds, the pair are concerned that even those that don’t at first appear serious could be fatal. And one of the wounds has punctured the patient’s lung, leaving him seriously ill.
In central London Tommy Lemon and Jo Pugsley are dispatched to treat an 18-year-old who’s on his first night out in the city. He and his friends have drunk a magnum of Belvedere vodka and champagne at a club, funded by a friend’s parents. But he’s fallen over and been sick and his friends are so concerned they’ve called 999.
James is worried about the ambulance staff telling his parents about the state he’s in and thinks he’s going to die. But in fact he’s heading to sleep it off at Soho’s Alcohol Recovery Centre, which – at a cost of £40 per bed vs £255 in hospital - takes pressure off under pressure A&E departments.
In Essex Jess Kyle and Winston Chin are working the night shift when they spot a young woman lying in the central reservation of the road. It’s a young girl who’s been on a night out, lost her shoes and is wandering home. She doesn’t want their help and won’t accept a lift home, but Jess and Winston are so concerned she’ll be OK that they follow her.
“I would have felt so much better if she’d said ‘Would you mind taking me home?’. Normally I don’t like taking people home, because I don’t feel that’s my job, I’m not a taxi,” says Jess. “But there was something about her, I just wanted to look after her. She was really vulnerable, but if they don’t want your help, what can you do?”
At five in the morning in Nottingham, Glenn Radford and Isabel Langon are called to help a 19-year-old student who’s taken an overdose of anti-depressants and drunk hair bleach.
The teenager is very lucky that after two days in hospital, she’s able to go home. But there’s another problem: her period is late and she’s worried she may be pregnant.
The teenager, whose mum died four years ago, faces an agonising decision. Whatever her feelings about having a baby, it would mean the young couple turning their lives upside down and, without the support of her mum, she would have to give up on her chance to get an education.
Director: Kathryn Tregidgo