DSC_0588There is still confusion among some Islanders as to when it is best to call the NHS health line 111 as opposed to ringing the accepted emergency number of 999.

So Island Life talked to Chris Smith, who is head of the IW Ambulance Service, and as such looks after the whole of the ambulance service for the Island, including the Control Centre at St Mary’s Hospital which caters for 999 and 111 calls.

The Ambulance service here on the Island has a total fleet of 35 vehicles, with maximum operation at any one time, including patient transport, of around 15 vehicles. About 150 staff overall work in the Control Centre and the operational side of the Ambulance Service. Between them they handle around 24,500 emergency 999 calls each year, with a further 53,000 Island callers dialling 111.

Chris explained: “I would emphasise that people should only ring 999 when it is a real life-threatening event. But if it is anything else then they should ring 111. Callers come through to the same Centre and are dealt with by the same highly trained Call Centre operators.

“So if someone is worried or concerned; has symptoms you are not sure of, or even want to check their medication, then generally 111 is the number to ring. Even if someone rings 111 with something they think is minor, we think differently based on the questions we ask. If that is the case then we can despatch an ambulance. If someone initially rings 111, then we can signpost them to the right place. We have clinicians available in the control centre 24/7.”

Chris has been in the Ambulance Service 32 years, working primarily in the West Midlands before moving to the Island 12 years ago, and took over as chief two and a half years ago. He said: “Just like the Ambulance Service anywhere else we have targets which we try to reach. Our target is to get to life threatening calls within eight minutes, which the target is 75 per cent in 8 mins which we achieve 77 per cent of the time; and we have to be at 95 per cent of 999 calls within 19 minutes. We achieve 97 per cent.

“It is challenging, because although we have the bigger towns of Newport, Ryde and Shanklin, we have the more diverse areas, like outlying villages and of course West Wight. We rely on co-responder teams, such as assistance from the fire brigade, which help us in some areas, and also voluntary first aid first responder schemes, which we have dotted around the Island as well.

DSC_0595“They are trained by us, and help us to meet those challenging targets. They normally get there within the eight minutes, and then we can back them up with a professional crew. Yes, we have had some adversity in recent weeks and months, and obviously I could never guarantee anybody a 100 per cent service when it comes to target times. It’s all about resources against demand. We are a free access service to the public, and we try to predict the demand at certain times the best we can, and when we anticipate busier times we do put more crews on.

“But there is always going to be that occasion when you have your full allocation of ambulances out, and that next call comes in. We then have to clinically prioritise calls as they come in and ensure the most clinically needy get the next available ambulance. We appreciate it is difficult for a family that is having to wait for an ambulance, but any concerns the public have, I like to meet them personally to discuss it fully with them.”

What would happen if there was a major incident on the Island? He responded: “We are equipped, as we have our own specialist teams for any terrorist-type attacks and major incidents. We have trained staff who could hold the fort for a few hours until reinforcements from the mainland arrived.”

The new centre embraces not only the ambulance service, but district nursing, mental health, social services and a rehabilitation team, which is evolving into a one-stop shop for health care on the Island.

Chris accepts that on the Island the Ambulance Service is more multi-tasking than on the mainland. He has a team of just four senior managers, and as a result even he, as the chief, goes out on ambulance calls, as do the other managers.

When Chris was made redundant from his job in a factory in the early 1980s he applied to the Fire Service, the Police and the Ambulance Service for work. He was invited to join the Police, but was told he would have to wait six months for a recruitment course place, so joined the Ambulance Service as an interim measure.

He smiled: “Six months later I was liking the ambulance work so much that I turned down a job with the Police – and 32 years later I like the job as much as ever. I still love the buzz of what we are doing, and every day is different. The Island is a special place to work and I am proud of the staff I have.”