Seventy years of change – one shared belief

Telling the story of the ambulance service from the birth of the NHS to the present day.

From painting your own ambulances and the most basic of first aid equipment to a state-of-the-art fleet and a world of technology, it is fair to say the ambulance service has changed dramatically since the introduction of the National Health Service seventy years ago today.

To tell the story, WM Eric Carnall, who worked for the NHS from the beginning, and Student Paramedic, Sid Amin, who is just eight-weeks into her training and journey to help save lives out on the road, have been speaking.

For 91-year-old Eric, from Worcester, his journey into the ambulance service began after leaving the army in 1947. He started working for Ronkswood Hospital as an Ambulance Driver who was responsible for transporting injured military personnel around. But with the forming of the NHS on July 5th 1948, he was immediately transferred to Worcester City Ambulance Service and it was then he began responding to 999 calls.

Eric, who also went on to work for the fire and police services, said: “There were six ambulances and six drivers, it was seen as a very important job. We had nobody out with us, we always responded on our own and our working hours were 8am to 6pm six days a week. Outside of that volunteers were responsible for responding.

“The vehicles and equipment we had to use were very poor quality really. We had nothing but a first aid kit to start with. Eventually the service did buy an oxygen kit, but we only had one to share between the six ambulances.”

It is a very different world today of course and one that Sid is just venturing out into, after spending two years working in one of the Trust’s call centres in Brierley Hill. During that time she took more than 16,500 calls but is now looking forward to when she becomes operational in October to work out of Hollymoor Hub in Birmingham.

She said: “I have wanted to be a paramedic for years and have always been interested in healthcare. I used to be a carer and thought to myself I could do more. I like being out and about and helping people is something I know I will enjoy.

“I imagine it must have been really hard all of those years ago without all of the equipment we have today. The ambulance service has evolved so much in 70-years, it is much more technical. That said, I believe a big part of the job is about talking to the patient and understanding their needs, once we know that, the equipment is there to help us.”

Whereas 1948 saw six ambulances in operation in Worcester, WMAS now has a fleet of 465 ambulances and 5,000 staff, a far cry from Eric’s day.

He said: “It wasn’t just the number of vehicles or staff, it was the jobs we had to do as well. We had to paint our own ambulances with a two-inch paint brush, wash our own soiled blankets and also complete any maintenance required on any of the vehicles. You just cannot imagine that happening today. “One of the paid ambulance drivers would also have to be on shift overnight in case all of the volunteers were busy, and that was unpaid. We were on £7 a week at the time which was very good money back then to be fair.”

Sid has seen a very different side and a much busier side to the service during her time in control, but says the service always copes well. “It is getting busier every day but we cope really well. I was on shift the day we took more than 5,000 calls. It was complete and utter madness but we were all ok and everything carried on as normal.

“The majority of calls we get are for emergencies but unfortunately some are inappropriate. I think that is down to a lack of education sometimes, and in some cases the alcohol certainly takes over. It is the same with the abuse of our staff. You cannot tar everyone with the same brush, some people are brought up differently. I think you have to realise that people who abuse emergency services probably abuse other people as well, I don’t think they target us particularly.”

Whilst not at the levels we see today, inappropriate calls and attacks on staff are not a new thing, as Eric explained: “I remember taking one call where the patient was blatantly asking for a lift home from the pub because they had drunk too much. After a short conversation, we managed to convince him that a taxi was the better option.

“I also remember attending a job where a man had been knocked down by a car. I was knelt down trying to find out was wrong with him when a guy put his hand on my shoulder and pushed me on to my back, saying, ‘I’ll deal with this. I’m a first aider’. I didn’t really have chance to say anything to him because he was very quickly arrested by the police.”

Despite their difference in generations, there is one thing Eric and Sid both have a belief of, the importance of the future of the NHS.

Eric said: “I was one of the NHS’ earliest employees and still believe today that it is needed desperately. It’s hard because it always need more money. If we lost the ambulance service as a free thing through the NHS it will be very sadly missed.”

Sid added: “I honestly hope we don’t ever not have an NHS. It has done so much for people and we’re really privileged to have it.

“One of the reasons I wanted to do this job was because it involves you being in so many different people’s lives. If the NHS disappeared, we would lose so many people that do such amazing work and would also leave lots of people without access to anything when they need help. I cannot image what it would be like to not have the NHS.”

Pics – West Midlands Ambulance Service.