When an emergency call comes in from one of South Africa’s most crime-ridden neighbourhoods, ambulances do not rush straight to the scene but go first to a police station to request an armed escort.
Business Day reports that a surge in attacks on ambulance workers has led to parts of Cape Town being declared danger “red zones”, but beefing up security means delayed response times in some of the poorest districts. Robbery, theft, vandalism, violence, at times linked to criminal gangs – more than 100 attacks against paramedics and drivers were reported in the Western Cape province last year.
The stoning of vehicles is a frequent hijacking ploy and medics are not spared. Armed police protection for ambulances during night-time call-outs was introduced last year, but, the report says, workers still do not feel any safer. Sometimes the police escort can even make matters worse.
In poorer neighbourhoods where crime is endemic, ambulances are targets of the same robbers that local communities face. “By virtue of the fact that they deliver services within the community they become part of that community and are thus subjected to the same issues,” says the provincial head of emergency medical services, Shaheem de Vries.
Ambulances are not permitted into red zones without a police escort. But Martin Makasi, head of Nyanga’s policing forum that acts as an intermediary between the community and police, says locals feel they are being unfairly punished for the actions of a few criminals. “It concerns us that people will lose their lives because they are waiting for paramedics. It also boggles the minds of the community to understand why the attacks are happening.”
The reports says Western Cape province lost more than 3,000 work days last year to staff being off after traumatic incidents. Some employees have asked for transfers out of the city to quieter, safer towns.
The report says although attacks have occurred countrywide, Cape Town is the epicentre of the problem. De Vries says his biggest challenge is retaining staff. “Whether they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and staying away, or because they’re resigning and leaving for safer harbours, I’m losing staff.” Even harder, he says, is attracting new applicants. “Young school-leavers, who are looking at career choices, are now having second thoughts about whether or not they want to enter the industry at all.”Business Day report