Opinion Piece – By Head of Health, Dr Beth Engelbrecht
Keep criminal hands off our emergency medical staff
On 23 August 2017, Western Cape Government Health Emergency Medical Services received a call from NY147 in Gugulethu where a patient was allegedly coughing and vomiting. This being a red zone, a police escort was requested who immediately assisted EMS on their arrival in the area.
Police escorted the crew to the address when the police vehicle was shot at, critically injuring one SAPS member. Our emergency services were caught in crossfire between SAPS and criminals. Still in shock and traumatized, our staff braved the bullets and still provided medical care to the injured and transported them to nearby medical facilities.
The EMS staff members involved were severely traumatized more so as this was not the first time these specific EMS members lives’ were placed in danger under similar circumstances. They have been and will be receiving more trauma counselling.
When this type of information reaches me, it causes me to lie awake at night. Not only because it is so shocking (who could imagine a prank call, leading EMS workers and SAPS into an ambush situation with deadly consequences) but also because I realise the long term cost of these attacks on our Teams in Green. The psychological and emotional cost for EMS workers who face this type of situation on a daily basis.
There is also the excruciating emotional cost to their loved ones and colleagues, who are wondering if they will come out of this alive this time. And the worry for Health Department Management, who have no choice but to expect these people back on duty, to face the same danger the next day, the next week, the next month.
These men and women entered their profession (as I did mine) because they want to make a difference, save lives. Yet sometimes it feels as if the communities and people they serve have turned on them, lashing out at the very people who are trying to help them. We know this is not true, we realise we are dealing with a criminal element in society, that some of our communities (so-called Red Zones) are crime-ridden and dangerous. We also know there are thousands of good people everywhere who want to protect our Team in Green.
We are committed to work with all stakeholders: Community Safety, Community Police Forums, SAPS and members of the community and as such when responding to red zones our staff must go to the police station in the area and request police escort. Operation Khuseleka was initiated to raise awareness and solicit community support for staff safety and co-operation. With the help of Neighborhood Watches and the Department of Community Safety we talk to communities in high risk areas, trying to explain our role and urge them to work with us to ensure the safety of our EMS crews.
An attack on EMS is an attack on (your) community – everywhere. Each time there is an attack the person in real need of emergency medical care suffers – as it impacts on the response times. There is also a knock-on effect on communities outside the high risk areas, because their service could also be delayed as a result of the attacks. There are direct costs: costs for repairs, cost for man hours lost and costs for trauma counselling services. But by far the most costly is the steady battering of the morale of our EMS staff.
I urge each community member (of all communities)…please help us spread this message: help us to keep criminal hands off our EMS workers. A world where they cannot do their job without being attacked is unimaginable. Please urge your leaders, your church elders, your school governing bodies, your street committees and ratepayers associations to take up this call to action. Stop the attacks. Hands off EMS workers. Let’s keep communities Green.
Head of Health: Western Cape Government Health