The bus you don’t want to catch
A VOICE comes over the radio – “a 45-year-old male is intoxicated and unconscious in McDonalds on Euston Road, NW1”.
It’s 11.20pm and it’s the first job of the night for Camden’s booze bus – a specialist ambulance dedicated to dealing with the area’s drunken casualties.
I was invited along to see the emergency crew in action over one of the busiest weekends of the Christmas period.
We arrive to find the incapacitated man slumped at one of the tables at the fast food restaurant, with the eatery’s worried manager looking on.
Following some negotiation he is installed in the ambulance to undergo basic medical checks.
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It quickly become apparent this isn’t the first time he’s been picked up and after listening to repeated slurs of “I’m suicidal because they’re dead”, the crew decide Royal Free A&E is the best place for him.
This initial call-out opens the floodgates. By 12.10am we’re at the Electric Ballroom where a 20-year-old student dancer has injured her ankle. She is in relatively sober, but was unable to walk after a male friend gave her a shove and she toppled over on her vertiginous high heels.
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She is wheeled to the ambulance with a friend and they both come along to the next incident involving a young woman, passed out further along the high street.
In one of the most frightening scenes of the night, we find the third patient laid-out on the pavement – completely incoherent but not unconscious.
The crew assess her condition and then lift her into the ambulance with the other two girls, cover her with a blanket, place a plastic bag around her neck to catch the vomit and speed back to the Royal Free.
The booze bus is run by the London Ambulance Service and has been operating around the centre of Camden for three years.
With alcohol-related 999 calls increasing year on year – in 2009 the LAS received more than 60,000 – the service has been set up to free up other paramedics to deal with more serious incidents.
The ambulance, based at the junction of Inverness Street and the High Street, has also helped to save the NHS money by treating up to five patients at a time.
“It started three years ago but we were kept on after a trial because we were proven to be efficient – especially when you start dealing with two patients at a time,” said Richard Harpin, who works on the booze bus every weekend.
Mr Harpin and his fellow crew members, Ana Mendoza and Dave Towers, work a 12-hour shift from 6.30pm to 6.30am. On an average night they can deal with anything from patients who are vomiting or collapsed to assault victims and minor injuries.
Unless they need hospital attention, the main aim is to get the people they pick up home safely.
Mr Harpin added: “If they’re in a fit state to get on a bus and we know where the bus goes we’ll drop them at a bus stop. If they’re going in a taxi we’ll drop them at a taxi rank. If they live close by we’ll drop them home, but generally we try to avoid that.
“I very much see my role as being to assist people to get home. It’s not to take them home – I’m not their mother.”