Ambulance crews under siege


Escorts needed to go into New Brighton after 20 attacks in 22 months

Ambulance personnel were instructed recently not to enter New Brighton without being accompanied by armed police.

“We are talking about a volatile situation,” Emergency Medical Service (EMS) head Brenhan Metune said, pointing out that there was, on average, one attack a month against ambulance crews.

“EMS practitioners are trained that their safety always comes first, as a dead rescuer can’t rescue anybody,” he said.

One health department official said the attacks on emergency service workers were as devastating as police killings.

EMS officer Monwabisi Booysen, one of the many ambulance crew members who face violent crime while out on the job, said: “People are dying because we cannot fetch them.

“We know helping us is not always the police’s priority.

“I arrive on an urgent call at the police station sometimes and am told to wait for 40 minutes because the officers are having supper.

“For us, those 40 minutes are life or death. We know people have died because we could not fetch them.”

Booysen said it was not that they did not want to go into New Brighton. “I live in New Brighton and I was fighting for us to keep on going there, but not even the furniture trucks or the municipal electricity vans go into New Brighton anymore without an armed escort,” he said.

“We need everybody – the churches, the schools, the councillors – to stand up for us.”

Metune said 20 serious and violent attacks on ambulances had taken place over the past 22 months – with no arrests made in any of the incidents.

“Emergency Medical Services management has engaged with police, ward councillors and communities in an attempt to address this unfortunate spate of attacks,” he said.

“There have been a number of engagements to request the communities’ assistance in taking ownership of these ambulances, as they serve the very people who will be adversely affected by the delays in response times.

“The [police have] been requested to assist EMS in providing an escort to ambulances that are going into affected areas.

“In addition, communities are asked to take patients where possible to the local charge office.

“EMS management’s cellphone numbers have been circulated at clinics, to contact us in emergencies.”

EMS station manager Bandile Nolutshungu said: “We know the communities are trying their best, but the situation is escalating.”

Nolutshungu said meetings had been held with New Brighton residents about the crisis.

Eastern Cape Department of Health spokesman Sizwe Kupelo – in response to a fresh attack two weeks ago – called for attacks on medics to be treated with as much urgency as police murders.

In the November 5 incident, Guy Fawkes revellers stoned an ambulance responding to a call.

Kupelo said it was distressing that, having dramatically improved the ambulance service, it was now being targeted by violent criminals.

Ambulance assistant Mkhanyisi Deliwe said: “The problem is that while the community was meeting, the tsotsis were drinking in the taverns.

“We must get the tavern bosses on board to help us as well.”

Deliwe, who often works in New Brighton, said when they were robbed, the criminals took everything they could – even their clothes.

“They even take your car key and later throw it away,” he said.

“We were warned not to carry a cheap phone as they will shoot you if you do not have a touchscreen phone.”

He said at this stage, crews were only barred from going into New Brighton without a police escort.

Booysen said: “If the robbers like your clothes or your patient’s clothes, they will take everything.”

Metune said: “The EMS went as far as notifying all radio stations and local newspapers of the [violent] incidents to raise awareness and [ask people to] protect EMS personnel.

“All staff . . . subjected to these heinous crimes have been debriefed and counselled.”

He said the attacks on ambulances included acts of vandalism, threats against personnel, robbery and attempted murder.

Most of the incidents happened in New Brighton.

In the 20 incidents, six ambulances were stoned, one ambulance’s tyres were slashed and the side mirror was ripped off another.

In another incident, ambulance crews were threatened by an angry crowd who threatened to set the ambulance alight.

Metune said in eight cases, ambulance crews had been robbed at gunpoint.

In June, an ambulance crew helping a gunshot victim was shot at in Kwazakhele by the gunmen who had been chasing him.

A month later, angry residents entered the control room and threatened EMS staff.

Kupelo said the provincial Department of Health had been vilified in the past for its lack of ambulances, but now when the tide was turning, criminals were causing setbacks.

“We worked hard to put this right and, today, we are the best province with regard to the number of ambulances and helicopters in the country,” he said.

It was dismaying that these services were now being targeted by criminals.

“An assault on EMS practitioners should be taken seriously. It is no different to police killings,” he said.

Metune said attacks on ambulances also meant the damaged vehicles had to be taken off the roads for repairs.

“If a vehicle is damaged, it will be out of commission for some time awaiting repairs.

“This will deprive the communities of an ambulance,” he said.

“Furthermore, if the staff go off with post-traumatic stress disorder, the community is further deprived.”

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