North East Ambulance Service has paid tribute to its staff in the wake of the extreme disruption faced during the Beast from the East.
Strong winds combined with heavy snow blizzards caused large scale disruption throughout the region, particularly in the Northumberland area, from the end of February and into the start of March.
As a result, North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) raised its operational status to level three of four – severe pressure. All but essential patient transport journeys were cancelled to allow the service to respond to those patients most in need.
Staff from all areas of the organisation battled through heavy snow drifts to come into work.
Between 27 February and 4 March, they answered more than 20,000 999 and NHS111 calls. Ambulance crews attended more than 6,000 emergency incidents and more than 4,500 scheduled care appointments, making sure dialysis and oncology patients got to their appointments. They also took people discharged from hospital back home so that hospital beds were free for more patients.
Many employees stayed with family and friends who lived closer to work, with some even sleeping on station so they were available for their next shift.
Two such employees were Belford ambulance crew Will Stoddart and Chris Aird. As well as sleeping on station in-between their night shifts, they endured a 22-hour-long shift after becoming stranded with other vehicles on the A1 near Alnwick on 1 March.
The pair continued working by walking up and down the queue of traffic to check that the motorists inside were well. They also supported the police to get the snow ploughs through.
Paramedic Will, aged 51, who joined NEAS in 2003 and qualified in 2007, said: “At around 2am we got a job in Bamburgh, which was only four miles away. Getting there wasn’t too bad but getting the patient down to Northumbria Hospital took us hours as we got stuck in a snow drift and had to be towed out. We became clear at the hospital just after 7am, half an hour before our shift was due to end, but just before we reached Alnwick the A1 came to a standstill due to the snow drifts.
“The weather was horrendous – even the snow ploughs were getting stuck! The police tried to turn cars around where they could but not everyone could turn around so it was a case of us going up and down the queue making sure everyone was ok. There was an elderly couple and a family with young kids so we were concerned for their welfare.
“Yes we were tired and hungry but we just kept busy trying to help; it’s our job, you just get on with it.
“It was my first time I’d worked with Chris and to be honest I was really pleased to have been paired with him that day, he was a great person to be stuck with.
After finally arriving on station just after 5pm, both men were unable to get home due to the weather. However, the Blue Bell Hotel in Belford came to the rescue, offering to put them up for the night and feeding them a fish and chip supper free of charge.
“It was great to get a good meal in us after all that time,” said Will. “We’d had a flask with us but had had nothing to eat all day! They were really friendly and went out of their way to help us, they had opened early just for us and the chef put his fryer straight on for us.”
Emergency care assistant Chris, aged 34, who only joined NEAS in June having previously worked as a chef for 20 years, added: “I volunteer for mountain rescue and Will’s ex-forces so we were pretty well prepared for the weather, packing shovels and our waterproofs, and it was a good job too!
“It was minus degrees but there was a real community spirit – we were among the police, farmers and mountain rescue teams all mucking together.
“It was a relief to arrive at the hotel for something to eat and an even bigger relief to get home the next morning; my wife also works for the ambulance service as a 111 call operator so she’d had to stay at her parents’ house so she could get into work so it was great to be able to finally see each other!”
Will and Chris weren’t the only examples of dedication to their jobs. When clinical care manager Chris Chalmers was unable to drive to his normal station, he spent his shift caring for stranded passengers in Berwick, liaising with Berwick’s minor injuries unit to accept a wider range of patients. A Scheduled Care crew in Alnwick, Doug Skee, Paul Porter and Alan Priest, also went over and above to find food and bedding for five patients who were stuck at Alnwick dialysis unit for the night due to blocked roads.
Paying tribute to the Trust’s employees, NEAS Chief Executive Yvonne Ormston said: “There are countless examples of our employees going above and beyond for the benefit of patients, far too many to mention.
“Will and Chris are particularly good examples of that and I can’t thank them enough, but I would equally like to thank everyone for their efforts through what was a particularly challenging time for us all. Staff from across our region and across all areas of our organisation worked tirelessly battling the elements around the clock to respond to patients in need.
“I would also like to thank our local communities across the North East for their support. As well as the Blue Bell Hotel’s generous support, the Co-Op petrol station in Alnwick opened up especially to let one of our operations managers refuel and the Hogs Head Inn in Alnwick also fed some of our crews.
“We also mustn’t forget our local mountain rescue teams who were an invaluable support to us and the farmers who helped pull us out of ditches and cleared the way for our ambulances to get through, to the members of the public who dropped off supplies at stations, offered us lifts into work and ran out of their homes with shovels to help clear the snow for our crews. You were all amazing, thank you.”