6 February 2009
Throughout the week, the bad weather has affected many parts of the country, cutting off whole communities and bringing normal life for many to a standstill.
As people struggle to cope with the worst snow to hit the country in 18 years, ambulance services across the UK have been calling on the Red Cross to help cope with the increased number of call-outs and specific challenges of transporting patients in severe weather.
Across the country, Red Cross volunteers have been braving the elements both day and night to help the statutory services. The organisation’s fleet of Land Rover 4x4 vehicles – donated by Land Rover – has been invaluable in enabling volunteers to reach vulnerable people in areas made inaccessible to standard ambulances.
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Helping across the country
In London, five volunteers spent all day and much of the evening driving paramedic crews – and even the grounded helicopter emergency medical support (HEMS) team – across the capital responding to call-outs.
Matt Smith, operations officer, said: "Our 4x4 vehicles allowed the paramedic crews to continue responding in areas where their ambulances were getting stuck or just couldn't reach. The Red Cross teams helped ensure people could get the help they need as quickly as possible. The London ambulance service were very grateful for our help."
Five volunteers responded to a call out from Princess Royal Hospital in Bromley asking for help clearing out-patients from the accident and emergency department. The team spent seven hours transporting five patients, including a mother and child, back to their homes.
Twelve volunteers spent five hours in the Notting Hill and Paddington area visiting vulnerable people identified by Westminster council at two blocks of sheltered housing and 150 properties.
Matt commented: "In conditions like we had yesterday it's especially important to check that people are okay, particularly where the power cut may have affected heating. People are often very grateful just to know that someone’s looking out for them and help is available if needed."
Adding to an already hectic day, a Red Cross fire and emergency support service (FESS) team was called out to help evacuated residents following a serious fire in Croydon which left a house gutted.
In Hampshire, emergency response manager Donna Taylor led a team of volunteers supporting the emergency services as the snow storms hit local communities on Monday (2 February).
Those caught up in the horrendous conditions included an elderly man who had fallen in the ice and badly broken his ankle – he needed to be carried down 57 steps. It was only thanks to a neighbour raising the alarm that he could access help.
In a separate incident, a two-year-old girl with very serious health problems needed urgent medical help but was cut off in her home. The Red Cross team got as far as they could in their 4x4 vehicle but, due to the severity of the weather, had to travel the last mile on foot to reach her.
Donna said: "We were there with the right equipment and the right people at the right time to really make a difference. I'm glad we were able to support the emergency services in this way.”
Throughout Sussex, three Red Cross ambulances are supporting the South East Coast Ambulance Service (SECAM) and helping to deal with non-urgent cases while crews deal with an increased number of emergencies.
Volunteer teams also supported the local ambulance service by transporting three patients needing transportation from Conquest Hospital in Hastings to their homes in the Rye, East Sussex. Making their way through treacherous road conditions, the Red Cross teams finally got the three patients home safely.
Service manager Dave Nelson said: "The patients' homes were quite hard to reach, some because they were rural but also because of the steep roads around Rye, which in bad conditions made them almost inaccessible.”
He added: "Yesterday was an extremely busy day and we’re continuing today to do all we can for those needing help during the severe weather. We know from experience that people can have particular difficulties in making vital journeys for medical reasons and, during bad weather, help is even more important. I'm glad that our trained teams of volunteers were able to support the emergency services in this way."
In the Thames Valley, volunteer Richard Dalton spent a busy day helping the emergency services respond to the severe weather in Bletchley, Milton Keynes and Bicester.
He said: "One man had just been flown back from holiday abroad with a really nasty leg injury. He urgently needed to be re-admitted to hospital here but the conditions were making that journey very difficult.
“He had a really steep driveway that made it almost impossible to get him out of his home comfortably. However, we were able to reach him with the Land Rover and get him to hospital so he could be properly assessed.”
"The team had a really busy day yesterday. Other people affected included mostly elderly people who were unable to make vital journeys for medical reasons. I'm glad that all of our trained volunteers were able to make a difference to those affected."
Throughout Kent, the bad weather has caused significant damage to infrastructure in some areas. At Longfield, near Gravesend, a team of volunteers equipped with a Land Rover 4x4 vehicle helped vulnerable and elderly people left without any power.
Jane Roberts, operations director for Kent and Sussex, said: “Our volunteers have travelled some distance in very difficult conditions to make sure that residents in the area – particularly vulnerable and elderly people – are not left to fend for themselves in this bitter cold.”
South Oxfordshire and Berkshire
In South Oxfordshire and Berkshire, two frontline ambulances have been on duty since yesterday, helping South Central Ambulance Service. Volunteer Nick Swift spent a gruelling day supporting the emergency services as they responded to calls during the severe weather.
Nick said: "We had an extremely busy day helping people throughout the whole of Berkshire. They were all either frail, infirm or medically unwell, and the fact they could not get out put some of them in an extremely vulnerable situation.
"Most of those we helped were in their homes and inaccessible except by using a 4x4 vehicle. Fortunately, our trained volunteers were able to reach them and help meet their needs.”
As heavy snow hit the West Midlands, volunteers turned out in force to support local ambulance services. Volunteer Mark Walker said: “Our team went to pick up people who lived in more isolated areas, which were hard to get to by ambulance, and took them to hospital. Our Land Rover 4x4 vehicle meant that we could get to the trickiest of homes.”
“Our first patient was a man in his seventies who was suffering with chest pains. He lived in a little set of houses down the back of a road, so the snow had really blocked them in – he was expecting to wait up to four hours for an ambulance. When he saw us drive right up to his front door after just over an hour, he was very pleased!”
Mark added: “When we got to him he was breathless with pain and had quite low oxygen levels so my team and I reassured him – and his wife – and provided him with oxygen during the journey to the hospital.”
Devon, Dorset and Somerset
Throughout the south-west area, volunteers have been supporting ambulance services day and night. Emergency teams in Barnstaple, Blandford and surrounding areas used Red Cross 4x4 vehicles to help reach vulnerable people. In Shaftesbury, a volunteer worked through the night supporting the out of hours doctor service
Andy Gill, first aid coordinator, said: “The weather has been pretty difficult – many roads are closed and there’s been driving snow – but our volunteer teams have been working non-stop. We have five Land Rover 4x4 vehicles throughout these areas and they have been invaluable in enabling us to help the ambulance services. Our job has been to ferry patients (and often an accompanying paramedic – some of these people are quite ill) between hospitals, specialist care units and their homes, as required.”
Andy added: “Earlier this week, our volunteers Margaret Childs and Paul Valance drove from Blandford to Salisbury, then to Bournemouth, back to Blandford and finally to Somerset. The last call I had from them – they always phone in to confirm that they’re home safe and sound – was at two in the morning. They really have put the hours in to help people during this bad weather.”
Margaret recalled: “A paramedic travelled with us so that, when we arrived, he could provide medical support while Paul and I prepared the vehicle to receive our patient. The weather started getting really bad in the late afternoon – we drove through quite a blizzard in North Dorset”.
Margaret, a volunteer for almost 45 years, said: “I was at home when I first got the call at 10am – I was just about to make some porridge for breakfast and go out for the paper. When I returned at 1am, I finally finished making it!”
Supporting the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS), 12 volunteers in six Red Cross ambulances have been working all week to reach people in their homes who urgently need medical support. The Land Rover 4x4 vehicles were especially important, since they were able to reach more remote areas that conventional ambulances were unable to reach.
Judi Evans, operations director, said: “Our volunteers have had an extremely busy few days supporting patients in great need. They have worked a total of 126 hours and treated 24 patients over the last four days – often in very hard to reach locations.
“Most patients had been involved in weather-related incidents, such as falls or traffic accidents, as well as more routine calls that have been compounded by the extreme weather.”
Rest centre support
On Monday, the Red Cross also helped set up a rest centre in Rothbury, Northumberland where 1,000 homes have been left with no gas heating. Volunteers have been working with the emergency services all week to ensure all residents in the affected area are being supported.
Working with community wardens and fire service personnel, volunteers have been calling door to door on local people, making them aware of available support – such as heaters, hotplates and hot showers – and ensuring they have the Red Cross’ 24/7 emergency helpline number. Eight volunteers and six staff have been working since Monday’s blizzards and the team will continue to support local emergency services until power has been restored to all homes.
Judi Evans, operations director, said: “Our volunteers have been working since Monday in the heart of the community. They have been available for a supportive chat or to give more help to those in greater need such as the elderly or more vulnerable. The response they have had back from local people has shown people really value such support in these extreme times.”
Earlier in the week, Red Cross volunteer teams supported the ambulance service outside Newcastle in more exposed rural areas by the edge of the Pennines.
Following the severe weather, volunteers have been supporting the East Midlands Ambulance Service (EMAS) and Queens Medical Centre in Nottinghamshire.
According to Helen Vine, ambulance support manager: “Our volunteers and staff sprang into action on Monday night as soon as they got the call. On Wednesday, they worked tirelessly to support the ambulance service into the very early hours of the morning and have continued ever since.
“Thanks to the Red Cross’ 4x4 vehicles, we have been able to reach people more easily than standard vehicles would have been able to do in these bad weather conditions. We have also been able to help EMAS by providing extra ambulances to support their service.”
The Red Cross also runs a care in the home service in Nottingham, which supports vulnerable people in their own homes following a stay in hospital. Audrey Essex, service manager, said: “Given the extreme weather, we wanted to make sure the people we help were safe and well so on Wednesday five Red Cross volunteers visited 48 residents to offer support and advice.”
Leicestershire and Lincolnshire
Red Cross volunteers have been out providing extra support for the East Midlands Ambulance Service (EMAS) this week in the Leicester and Lincolnshire areas.
Peter Williams, senior service manager, said: ”Ten volunteers have been working tirelessly throughout the week to help transport vulnerable people from their homes, care homes and surgeries to hospitals in the area. One of our volunteers is even taking a day off work tomorrow to come and help out.
“On Wednesday, we reached five people who are out in rural areas and brought them safely to hospital. One person was suffering from chest pains, one had an overdose and another had suffered a stroke. We are lucky enough to have a Land Rover 4x4 ambulance so were able to get around in the snow.”
As conditions continue to worsen, volunteers will be deployed again at the weekend.
In Peterborough, volunteer teams are working with other agencies to help vulnerable homeless people, who are most susceptible to the freezing conditions. The Red Cross has donated blankets and clothes to the St Theresa’s homeless day centre, and is providing hot drinks and meals. Volunteers are also handing out Tesco food vouchers to destitute refugees and asylum seekers who use the organisation’s refugee project in the city.
On Thursday night, volunteers used a Red Cross fire and emergency support service (FESS) vehicle to offer temporary shelter and warm drinks to vulnerable people in the city centre throughout the night. The organisation stepped in after the severe weather meant regular volunteers could not make it to the centre to man a soup kitchen van that normally runs every evening.
Approximately 35 homeless people were provided with hot soup and bread – and, crucially, shelter from the freezing weather. One homeless man had reportedly walked five miles with a fractured knee to find shelter and a hot meal.
Andy Hewett, senior services manager, said: “The fact that one homeless man walked so far in great pain to reach the soup kitchen shows what a vital lifeline this is to homeless people in Peterborough. The severe weather has put people who are already vulnerable, such as homeless people and destitute asylum-seekers, at serious risk.”
Volunteers have been braving the bitter cold and driving blizzards to support the ambulance service across Wiltshire. First aid volunteer Blair Laird (19) said: “We have been working round the clock transporting people to and from hospital, particularly those who live in more isolated areas that are hard to reach by ambulance.”
He added: “We’ve been mostly responding to those who have taken ill in their own homes and people who have injured themselves while enjoying the snow. Many of these accidents happened in parks or isolated parts of the countryside where it would have been virtually impossible to drive an ambulance. However, our Land Rover 4x4 vehicles have been able to get right up to their front doors.”
The first aid teams’ training has been vital in ensuring casualties get effective treatment on the spot. Blair recalled: “We helped one girl who had suffered a nasty accident on her sledge. When we reached her she had a bad cut and was already starting to shake – one of the signs of shock – so we worked quickly to get her to hospital.”
You can see Blair being interviewed on BBC Points West - the regional TV news programme - at 6.30pm and 10.25pm tonight (9 February).
Red Cross teams have been working throughout the county in Warminster, Salisbury, Swindon and Bath.
As whole areas were cut off by several feet of snow, eight volunteer teams positioned themselves across Northern Scotland on Friday ready to support the Scottish Ambulance Service.
Equipped with Land Rover 4x4 vehicles, volunteer teams were stationed in Aberdeen, Elgin, Lossiemouth, Kyle of Lochalsh and Inverness to respond to non-critical 999 calls and provide emergency support to ambulance crews.
Several feet of snow fell through the night on Thursday across Grampian and the Highlands, leading to several roads being closed – including the main route south, the A9.
Ian Rideout, operations director, explained: “We had vehicles and crews positioned in strategic locations ready to provide back-up to the ambulance service. For example, in Kingussie our volunteers were able to collect vital cardiac medicine from the pharmacy for one elderly couple cut-off by the snow.”
He added: “Thankfully in the end, the day didn’t prove too busy for the ambulance service, but it’s great to know our volunteers can and will respond at a moment’s notice when needed.”
Prepare for severe winter weather
How to deal with hypothermia