With crime already out of control in South Africa and an eerie feeling of lawlessness roaming the streets, attacks on emergency medical services (EMS) personnel is the last thing this country needs. A gunpoint robbery of two paramedic personnel in Nyanga last week Friday has once again brought the issue of EMS safety into the spotlight While some EMS staff and representatives are calling for these emergency healthcare workers to be armed, government officials are refusing – instead offering what they regard as more suitable, alternative interventions.
President of the South African Emergency Personnel’s Union, Mpho Mpogeng says that EMS workers are having to choose between their jobs and their lives.
“These people [government and the related health departments] don’t see any urgency in this matter…they are not taking us seriously,” said Mpogeng.
“At some stage, we also need to correct the issue of station managers. They know about hotspot areas but during the night when you get a call from a hotspot they tell you to go – even if you are not safe. If you delay, they will threaten that you will lose your job.”
“So, our workers work under very difficult conditions because they have to choose between their jobs and their lives. We go knowing that we might not come back…”
Mpogeng urges community members to do more to prevent and report attacks on EMS workers and suggests that clinics remain operational 24/7 so that ambulances can collect patients from these clinics rather than being isolated and receiving patients from homes and unfamiliar areas.
Head of the Western Cape government’s Department of Health’s Emergency Medical Services, Dr Shaheem De Vries, said they take the attacks seriously and are hard at work to address the issue.
“EMS is a constitutionally mandated service, which means we are obligated to deliver to everyone – regardless of conditions, where they stay, race or the communities which require the service. Our inability to do that because of safety concerns is something we take extremely seriously and we’ve been working incredibly hard with staff, organised labour, health departments as well as safety stakeholders to try and ensure we fulfil this constitutionally mandated service.”
De Vries added that to his knowledge, disciplinary measures have not been taken against any staff members who have expressed reservation at entering EMS attack hotspots.
“We have never had disciplinary steps against, or felt the need to take any steps against, any staff member who’s exercised that right [to consider their own safety and not want to go on call out due to danger in the western cape],” he said.
“Over the last year, our attacks have declined considerably. This year, we’ve had only 16 attacks whereas in 2018 we had 67 in the whole of the year.”
“But the problem isn’t the number of attacks, the problem is the threat of these attacks. Our interventions have escalated because the risk of attacks remain. The most debilitating effect of these attacks is the threat and that staff constantly have to consider their own safety going into scenes.”
Meanwhile, national director of EMS and Disaster Management, Raveen Naidoo echoed some of the statements made by Mpogeng, saying that the most successful intervention to combat the attacks is, and always has been, community engagement.
“We also have interventions relating to staff – there are lots of little things staff can do, like being aware of the situation, where they are going to, minimising the risk in terms of carrying expensive jewellery and so on.”
Naidoo also denied that EMS staff are threatened with dismissal due to fear of entering hotspots.
The National Health Council, led by the Minister of Health, indicated that if communities don’t protect EMS staff and that if attacks don’t stop in particular areas, emergency medical services would be withdrawn until conditions are safer, according to Naidoo.
He reiterated that all health establishments are gun-free zones and that EMS personnel are not to carry such weapons.
“We do not condone the carrying of guns [by EMS personnel]. There was a decision that all health establishments would be gun-free zones – we are in the business of healthcare,” said Naidoo.
“The attacks may even increase if EMS personnel have firearms. We’ve consulted widely with SAPS, the SANDF as well as other agencies and groupings and having a gun on your person places you more at risk because individuals who want to attack you will search for your gun to use it for other crime related activities.”
“In terms of national interventions, it is certainly a national problem, but it is not as rife as what we see in the Western Cape. The issues are isolated in various places – it’s not something you can plan for. They are random, opportunistic crimes and are related to the socioeconomic problems of our country.”
De Vries has indicated that body armour which would protect against knives and other low-velocity weapons is an option being explored for EMS personnel.