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Hoax calls put lives at risk

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Ambulance service launches campaign against drunken 999 phone calls and attacks on paramedics

THE ambulance service that serves West Berkshire is launching a campaign urging people not to call 999 unless they are facing a genuine emergency, after it reported receiving more than 1,000 hoax calls last year.

The South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS) said that valuable resources were often wasted and lives put at risk as people continued to call the service to help change light bulbs, give them a lift home, fix broken television remote controls and even attend to sick pets.

The service only has enough ambulances for one per 33,000 people across the area that it covers – Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Hampshire – but from January 1, 2011 to October 31, 2011, it received 1,235 hoax calls.

It currently costs the SCAS £480,000 a year to put a two-person ambulance on the road, with the average cost of attending each incident £257, and there are three emergency operation centres across the south, taking 1,000 calls a day, 200 of them life-threatening.

Attacks on ambulance staff are also on the increase. The service has said that there were 60 reported attacks in 2009-10, increasing by 20 per cent to 73 attacks last year.

The SCAS emergency services manager for West Berkshire, Paul Mitchell, who has more than 18 years experience as a paramedic, said that people needed to stop abusing the service or risk losing access to it.

He said: “We experience inappropriate calls every day, such as lonely people calling for a chat; calling us to mend a broken tap; and people who are regularly drunk.

“Whilst we are attending a person who is drunk, a person with a serious heart problem has to wait to be treated.”

Mr Mitchell said that there were four groups of people who tended to call the service inappropriately: young people who think it is funny to see people in uniform rushing about; drunks who call late at night for a lift home; some people with mental illnesses who become habitual callers; and institutional abuse of the system, where housing associations, care providers, community nursing services or local authorities call the ambulance service because an alarm has been triggered at one of their properties but no-one on site is available to check on the person.

He added: “In many cases, due to cost cutting, wardens and other staff has been done away with, so the alarm is triggered in a central location.

“The centre will then try to contact the person who triggered the alarm, but if there is no answer, they will contact us – we are now being used as a stop gap for these places.”

He said that those who abused the system for emergency calls ran the risk of being prosecuted.

“In the first instance we will ring the number back, and we are often met with a very apologetic voice on the other end of the line, but failing that we will send letters to the address or pay them a visit. If this does not work, we will prosecute and the person could be temporarily cut off from the service,” he said.

The service has now launched a video warning of the consequences of abusing the system. It can be viewed at 999southcentral.co.uk

A film accompanying the SCAS's campaign to urge people to "think" before they dial 999 can be found online at: http://www.youtube.com/999SouthCentral

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