Dial 999 If You Can’t Cope With Life

When the last chairman of the London Ambulance Service left earlier this year he gave an exit interview in our internal newsletter, he said, “We are not an emergency service any more, we are a problem solving service”.

Which is kind of the root of our problem.

For my last four night shifts I'd spent my time going to people who really didn't need an ambulance. They fell into one (or more) of a number of categories.

The 'I want treatment now'.

This group of people really have no idea what an ambulance is for – they've had a pain in your arm for four days, haven't taken any painkillers, haven't seen a GP and now at 3am in the morning decide that now is the perfect time to pick up a phone and dial 999.

Explaining to these people that this is not what the ambulance service is for will only result in them whining “but it really huuuurts”. Which means a trip to the hospital if I want to keep my job. Explaining that if they'd made an appointment to see their GP they'd be better by now rather than sitting in A&E for four hours also falls on deaf ears.

The 'I want my problem solved'.

I was sent, under blue lights, to a woman who wanted a cup of tea.

'Patient wants cup of tea' written as large as life on my computer terminal. Which in my mind doesn't really make her a 'patient'.

Sure enough, nothing wrong with her – but her carer was running ten minutes late and she wanted her cup of tea right then and there. I found myself standing there in the kitchen watching her make it herself.

The 'I can't hold my drink'.

Drink, drink, drink, drink. Fall over, fall asleep, wake up. become abusive. The police aren't interested, to be honest neither am I, but I can't leave someone laying on the pavement in case they get mugged and it'll all be my fault, not the fault of the person who drank so much they couldn't walk.

Lather, rinse, repeat for the majority of the night.

The 'Worried well'.

Your baby cried? Your child vomited once after taking it's milk? You choked on a glass of water? People who have nothing wrong with them – well, just dial 999 for an ambulance and you too can have someone sit there and say, “There, there, it'll all be alright”.

Then we'll take you to hospital because you want to go to 'get checked out'.

The 'Mad'

Not the people with a genuine mental illness – after all they are genuine patients. No, I'm talking about the people who have an argument and then have a hissy fit – roll around the floor, pretend to be unconscious, pretend to fit.

In toddlers, having a temper tantrum is to be expected. In adults it apparently needs a 999 emergency ambulance.

The 'Bad'

So, you've been run over by a stolen car – driven by your underage cousin who has since driven off and has torched the car. You then sit in the back of the ambulance with your minor leg injury whinging that 'the hospital will make me wait for ages'. Then when the triage nurse sits you out in the waiting room you throw a strop and say you are going to walk home.

Then when I show you the way out, you get angry at me for helping you out.

Yeah – screw you too buster.

The 'Sad'

Those who have, through bad life choices, ended up unable to look after themselves – the alcoholics, the lonely, the drug addicts. Of all the groups these are those that I have most sympathy for and have less problem being sent to, they phone us up for a chat, they call us for the long running illnesses that they have. The only number they know is 999 during those lonely hours of the morning. We turn up, we take them to hospital, they sit in the waiting room to talk to a psychiatrist – then they leave and do it all again tomorrow.

The 'Complete and utter misunderstanding of what an ambulance does'.

No, we will not deliver condoms to you. Even if you do want to 'shag that bitch but don't want to catch a disease'.


We do not prescribe painkillers. Nor are we (despite the best attempts of our managers) an out of hours, to your doorstep, immediate GP service. Call us if you want to go to hospital, not if you want to stay at home with tablets for your self diagnosed 'swine flu'.

We do not fix stairlifts, beds, sinks or windows.

If you go into hospital via an ambulance you will not get seen quicker.

Let me repeat that.

If you go into hospital via an ambulance you will not get seen quicker.

I can't help you pay off your debts either, nor settle an argument about something that was just on TV.

Each of these people have picked up the phone, dialled 999 and when asked what emergency service they require have asked for an ambulance. What they should do is ask for the fire service – they have more plumbers working for them and they are a lot less busy than us.


I don't hate these people, well, maybe 'The Bad', but at the end of the day the reason why we can't get to that heart attack in time, the reason why your gran lays on the floor for hours with a broken hip is because we are spending more and more of our time chasing after people who think that '999' is the only number that can solve their problems.

As our ex-chairman says, we are no longer an 'emergency' service, much like the police who are called to deal with couples arguing over control of the TV remote, we are being used more and more as someone to whom responsibility is handed.

'Look after me', they say – forgetting that they are adults who should have some idea of how to keep their body and mind working in some sort of reasonable fashion without needing an emergency response.

Education, of course is the answer, my solution would be to remove 'Hole in the wall' from the TV schedules and replace it with an hour of 'How to look after yourself'. Then make every TV channel have to show it at the same time so that there is no getting away from it.

Meanwhile I'm off to scrape the word 'Emergency' from all our ambulances.


For those that worry that I'm on the verge of burning out – I'm not. When I was nursing I got burnt out, and I can recognise the signs.

If you have ever done a health and safety course of fires, you'll probably know about the 'triangle of fire', where the three sides of the triangle are made up by 'heat', 'fuel' and 'oxygen'.

At the moment I have the 'triangle of whinging', it's three sides made up by 'Seasonal Affective Depression', 'Too many nightshifts with a stinking cold', and 'going far too long without meeting anyone who actually needs an emergency ambulance'.

While I normally feel crappy around this time of year there has been an unusually long stretch of time since I last went to a 'worthwhile' job. One where the pulse quickens a little and you actually have to think. Think, as opposed to ask them to walk onto the ambulance and then fill in some paperwork before leading them off the ambulance at the other end.

(As an example – we were sent to a 'stabbing'. He'd been punched and had a scrape to his buttock…)

24 thoughts on “Dial 999 If You Can’t Cope With Life”

  1. It's cr4p, huh. I don't work in your field, but I DO see in my own a lot of people who have a “sense of entitlement” and think that everyone else is just here to pick up their problems and fix them.I'm sorry you feel shitty, and I'm sure that the warmth of strangers is no help at all, but as a reader I *feel* like I know you, and consequently care about you.

    Even when you don't get sent to any proper jobs, the knowledge that you're there covering us makes a difference to those of us who wouldn't dial 999 lightly!


  2. At least if you are going to jobs you are not stuck in the office all night wondering what will happen. I don't do waiting for too long it drives me mad.If you spent all night in a depot not doing much apart from sleeping you would have to be reclassified as fire…. :o)

  3. Well said mate.A lot of the calls we are now receiving, exhibit how utterly non-emergency we are, and how a whole generation has lost the ability to cope with everyday life, and help themselves.

    Two examples from recent weeks:

    “Patient had an orgasm and need it cleaning up” and

    “Sprayed sexual oil on penis. States penis is disappearing”I kid you not.

  4. Probably just being naive… but I thought drunk and disorderly is an offence.Why not station a copper in every emergency room (or PCSO) and whenever someone comes in on an ambulance who is just drunk and nothing else, they get booked for drunk and disorderly; since wasting ambulance/A&E time is definitely out of order. Criminal record and a fine for them. Could even have the the fine paid to the ambulance service as the “victim”.

  5. Swings and roundabouts eh? I work the other side of the river to you, and have had at least one really sick/deserving patient every shift for the last 3 weeks, including a NOF, # disloc shoulder on a 92 year old, couple of intracranial bleeds, one close to death asthma attack etc. And I'm whinging the opposite to you, wondering where all the walkers are!! No pleasing us lot is there?The worthy people are still out there, and you'll meet one soon enough I'm sure.

  6. I vote we take hole in the wall off the tele and replace it with an actual day in the life of 999 services. None of the exciting things like police chases and crash teams. An hour long programme which shows the shitheads who call the ambulance for fuck all. Nobody's going to believe it unless they see it for themselves on TV

  7. Aye – if there is one thing that ambulance service isn't short of, it's moaning…Maybe I should be trying to head south of the river?

    (Nah – I'm not *that* desperate)

  8. You forgot the maternataxis! Also the 'patients' that call for something minor when they have a perfectly good car to take them. Or patients who say they can't afford a bus or taxi to the hospital so call 999 instead.My latest utter nonsense job was to someone who had gotten shower gel in their eye and just wanted advice. It came through as an amber. Turns out they hadn't even read the label on the side of the bottle which advises what to do let alone use their own common sense which was obvioulsy lacking!

  9. The service you describe bears little resemblance to the service I joined in the early eighties.At the time I joined, there was not the immense pressure on resources you relate to in your blog. For example, it would not be unusual to take a vulnerable patient home after discharge and make them tea, and get the heating on. If anything, I would have said that a majority of the population were perhaps too stoic for their own good.

    Reading this blog and others related to front-line medical care I am truly amazed, and concerned at the shift in its use. As stated above the populace would call an ambulance as a last resort. I sometimes found myself thinking you should have called us earlier.

    We had some fools who would call us without good cause, but the vast majority were justified, and some of these done relutantly.

  10. At least you didn't have to spend didn't have to spend hours going between hospitals because none would take the patient.

  11. I can say now, that if someone hits me I won't be sacked for swearing at them.Nope – no swearing at all.

    (But seriously – that's a really shitty story and yet how like the NHS in that your manager manages to stab you in the back after *you've* just been assaulted…)

  12. I know you were probably being flippant, but as someone who works for the fire service, we can also do without timewaster calls. We may go to less calls than you, but we also have far fewer vehicles available.

  13. Yes – it was a joke… The sort of traditional joshing that goes on between emergency services.It was a reference to how many FFs have a second job.

  14. Re; The Psychiatric patients.I've said it before, and I'll say it again.. DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT! Make official complaints.. tell the people that can change things.. get someone to come and do training to the staff at the trusts.. if its NELFT, tell me, I can make sure those that can change things get the information. I gave the “management” some print outs of some of your posts recently, and they are interested..

    Actually, you have just given me another idea.. Now to try and find someone in LAS willing to come talk to service users about what the LAS does and what it *shouldn't* do! (any ideas?)

  15. The inter-service banter was very funny. I was a member of my local darts team, and my oppo was a FF. As we were both ex-forces we would go for gold when playing at home or away.Like my mate, I had a second job, which led to the death knell of my service. Being on shift, and working outside of the job, when one of the kids looked at me with alarm, it was time to leave, as I had become a stranger.

    Loved the job though…

  16. I called an ambulance, and after reading this and other blogs I kept wondering to myself at the time, should I. But in this case I looked at it let my FAW training tell me I needed to (and I did).Driving down a country road with my wife… I met 2 horses in the road one with a rider one without, I stopped as could see the horse was upset and got shouted at she fallen off down the path I am going to get help. Then to watch the women ride of…she would have been better staying. As soon as I saw the lady, I knew I need an ambulance, blood from arm and helmet edge… helmet down the hill… and she was have problems breathing.

    I dialed 999 and relised I face 2 problems…1 where was I and 2 where was I… thats ok I remember there is a call box just up the road… told the lady I need an ambulance and why and that it was xxxx wood run by forestry commission at opposite end to car park 1/2 mile away.

    She said that is not on my computer. I asked her to hold on as I was driving to the phone box which would give her more details (push come to shove I could leave daughter at phone box to point right way). Arrived at phone box and the blighter had gone. So I had nothing… no house no farm no box (they removed it 2 months before as no calls had been made from it in 12 months)…it was 10 minutes till next car came down the road while I tried to work out where I was… I was giving directions from next town and it was working… the car stopped and he gave location from sat nav. Paramedic car must have been in area already because 5 minutes later turned up, spent another 15 minutes wait for the ambulance.

    As I helped the paramedic carry his stuff back to his car, I was apologizing like mad about not knowing where I was and explained what I had told them over the phone, his answer was if they told me that I would of been here 10 minutes before, but was getting frustrated and rang on his phone and asked them did they not have anything and control said “xxx wood” and I turned around drove right here, wish they told me that at start! As it is such a major landmark around here is and sign posted for miles. (It is bordered by 3 miles of road, but does not take that long to drive 3 miles of empty road). Which just goes to prove despite all claims to contrary, moving your call centre 2 counties away does mean local knowledge is lost and made me wonder what they told crews when they struggled for location?

  17. Do you ever want to say a variation on that old parental favourite “you'll know why you're crying in a minute!”…

  18. “What they should do is ask for the fire service – they have more plumbers working for them and they are a lot less busy than us.”I just spat tea all over my computer. Thanks a lot!

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