Thursday, March 12, 2009


Standby in the supermarket car park, four o’clock in the morning.

One day I’ll paint this. One day I’ll hang a wide, windscreen-shaped canvas on the living room wall so any time of day or night I could put myself back in this seat and wallow in the desolation of the scene – the recycling bins, the advertising hoardings, the pay-at-the-pump petrol station, the blasted saplings, the factory units beyond the hedge. But where would you buy the colours you’d need? And if you had them, how would you mix them, how would you spread them out, to even hint at the leached-out, down-lit, washed-up inhumanity of the place?

A car pulls over at the recycling bins. An elderly man gets out and begins popping bottles and cans through the correct holes.
Who does that at four in the morning?
We watch him from the cab. He folds the carrier bags as they become empty and piles them up on the roof of his car. He couldn’t do that if it were windy, I think. What would he do if it were windy? He finishes, rolls the bags up, secures them with an elastic band, stows them in the boot.

He drives off.

The car park is empty again.

Busy? Jesus – worst ever! Non-stop all day, every one a proper job. The last one was an arrest in the street outside a shopping centre. I was on my own for about five minutes until Chas came by off duty and pitched in, thank God. Then a crew turned up, so that was a relief. There were a couple of PCSO’s on scene, but I might as well’ve grabbed two shop dummies out of the window, stuck a yellow jacket on them and stood them up next to us all the crowd control they did. Honestly, there must’ve been about two hundred people milling about. The crush was so bad our bags were getting kicked over. One woman was right at the front with her hand over her mouth like this, like she was going to chuck. I said to her: You don’t have to watch this, love. Why don’t you just fuck off and let us do our job? But anyway – we got a few shocks in, he went down the usual PEA – Asystole route. We collared and boarded him in the end because – that was the other thing – he’d whacked his head on some railings as he went down and had this horrible boggy mass at the back of his head. We ran him in, but it was academic. Resus was crammed when we got there. We were coming in the door just as the porters were coming out with that lovely box trolley they have with the green tarp. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d been wheeling a handcart. But it cleared a space for us, and the team were nicely warmed up. Honestly – a fucking war zone.

The radio twitters and beeps. An all-call for a Category A breathing problem. Miles away. I hit the mute button and the cab’s silent again. Rae is slumped forward on the wheel, using her arms as a pillow. There’s a scene in that fifties film of The Time Machine where Rod Taylor is powering forwards through time. Slowly at first, the moon and sun chasing each other across the glass roof of the conservatory, and then more quickly, his house falling away around him as the dial spins on the dashboard and hundreds of years fly past, the scene changing constantly and quickly until suddenly a mountain rises up around the machine and he’s locked deep inside the rock, and it’s dark and cold, and he despairs that it’s his fate to be trapped like that forever, as the dial spins through tens of thousands of years until at last the mountain is eroded away and he’s back in the air again.

I check my watch. We’ve been here twenty minutes.

We had an elderly woman burned up in a fire. Fell asleep in her chair, smoking a fag. Dot dot dot. Trumpton were there and they pulled her out – no mean feat, considering her size. Twenty stone, at least. But there was nothing to be done. She was pretty comprehensively cooked. We took her on the vehicle, out of the public gaze, and then it was down to the mortuary. I had to bin my uniform. That’s our truck out front, all the doors open. I wouldn’t take that one for a while.

The car park seems to stretch on forever, following the curve of the planet. There surely cannot be enough cars in the world to fill all these marked out spaces. Where are the people to drive those cars? Where do they live? Instead of cars I watch as each space fills with people lying down asleep. Fragile, lucent figures, arriving alone and in family groups, drifting along, following the arrows, finding a gap, lying down. The petrol pumps unhook themselves and blow a peppermint scented mist across them. Birds fly over with messages held in their claws. One of them swoops down and in through the open window of the cab. It grabs me by the shoulder and begins to rock me backwards and forwards. I look up. Rae is shaking me. I was snoring.

I’ve never seen so much blood – and I’ve been to a few bloody ones. The kitchen was like a paddling pool. The poor old thing was lying on her back, one leg up on a stool. I thought they’d been a murder with a chainsaw or something, but what it was - she’d tripped as she’d come in from the garden and snagged a varicose vein on the concrete step. Amazing she was still alive, the blood she’d lost. And the air – it had a metally twang I’ve been tasting on and off all day. We were off the road for a good hour cleaning up the truck after that one. And the very next job we get? Breech birth infant resus. I’ve never been so tested in all the years I’ve been here. What can I say? That new kid I was on with? What a Jonah.

Rae hits the call button on the radio. After an age of static, Control gets back to us.
‘Vehicle calling, go ahead.’
‘We’ve been here about a thousand years, Control. Can we request an RTB?’
Another pause. Either end of the conversation studying the clock. We’ve been here forty minutes. They could insist we stay the hour.
But: ‘Return to Base, then. Thank you for your help.’
‘No problem.’
She replaces the handset on the little hook, grips the wheel and stares out across the car park.
‘Much as it pains me to leave this place,’ she says. Then starts the engine.


I never appreciated how sweet movement is until now.


Anonymous said...

Theres not many things as soul destroying in this world as standby at stupid O'clock in the morning!

loveinvienna said...

Interesting! I was a little confused as to who was supposed to be saying what - were the italics Rae's stories? :) Anyway very good post about night shifts and how they addle your brain slightly!

Liv xxx

Ben said...

Wow! Amazing juxtaposition, really shows the duality of the job. Nice change of pace from the linear stuff (not that I'm complaining about those in any way!). You working on a book yet?? ;)

Spence Kennedy said...

Early AM standby - aargh!
And hard to understand at that time of day, given that all the roads are clear and you're bound to make ORCON. Sigh.

The italics were supposed to represent the crews we saw on base at handover. It was that thing that happens sometimes when the day shift sounds horrendous - and the night passes off without anything happening at all (to speak of).

Thanks for that. I would like to experiment a bit more with the form of some of these stories. As far as any book goes, it's a long way off. I need to come up with a way to bring this material together, because at the moment it's all rather disjointed and anecdotal. But maybe I'll figure something out. :)

Anonymous said...

For some reason I always thought ambulance folk were sitting at some tation, like a fire crew, waiting a call. I take it that isn't the case?

Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Carol
We take it in turns to go out to one of four standby points thru the city, all hours. These are the places that are judged by computer to be the most likely to be close as calls come in (based on previous patterns). It's understandable during the day when the traffic's bad, but in the early hours it doesn't seem justified. And it's pretty gruelling, sitting in the cab for an hour when you either want to be doing some work or lying down!

MarkUK said...

This last New Years Eve I was riding shotgun with a paramedic on an RRV. It was that quiet I couldn't believe it.

We stood by for a while in a factory car park, with a Maccy D's next door. We were there about 40 minutes until we got a call for miles away - actually closer to the station, but other units had found something interesting for a change.

After handing over to the crew, we were asked oncwe more to go on standby - in the same god-forsaken hole as before.

We waited 45 minutes before asking for, and getting, an RTB.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey MUK!
A factory car park, eh? Sounds great. They certainly choose the loveliest sites for the standby points. I was up in London recently and saw an RRU on a roundabout. Mmmm!

I'm certain that the public see us in places like this and think we're skivving.


Unknown said...


One of the other blogs I follow pointed me here. You are an incredibly talented writer, and this post blew me away. It is a frighteningly accurate description of the hours of boredom punctuated by the minutes of terror that we deal with in this job.

I have to put you in my blogroll. Do you mind?

uphilldowndale said...

Wonderful stuff Spence, never mind the book cut straight to the script, you have the eye and ear of a film maker

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks Walt!
It certainly is a job of contrasts - absolute boredom to high stress in a matter of minutes. I think that's why so many ambulance people seem so ultra laid back and phlegmatic about everything. They've learned how to keep themselves steady with plenty of ballast.

Thanks very much for reading - and for the name check on your blog (excellent blog, btw).

Hey UHD!
How are you?
Yeah - I can just see Siren Voices as a film - a cross between 300 and Carry on Doctor. With light sabres. ;o) x

Michael Morse said...

Hello Spence,

Walt pointed me your way, very glad he did! I've been writing about this job for years, at times I get a bit lazy. Thanks for raising the bar and giving me a good kick in the seat; I've got to try a little harder.

I'm adding you to my blog roll, hope you don't mind. You folks in the UK are slowly taking over Rescuing Providence!

loveinvienna said...

With lightsabres? Hehehe :P Wouldn't it be fighting with defibrilator pads as opposed to lightsabres? Bet they can pack quite a punch ;)

Liv xxx
PS. I like the variation in writing, keeps things interesting! :)

Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Michael,
Thanks v much for that. I appreciate it.
BTW - I've just ordered a copy of your book! The paypal thing didn't make any mention of postage - and I know it's a hardback - so let me know if you need any more funds for the postage!
Looking forward to reading it.

Hi Liv
Maybe not light sabres. Budget won't stretch to that. We'll have to use pen torches instead (and make the noise ourselves).
;) x

Anonymous said...

Oh, holy wow. You are a fecking amazing writer. Right, this one's going in my bookmarks. :D

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks v much Anon! ;o)

Pat said...

I am torn between letting all my EMS friends know about this blog, and keeping it to myself! It may sound awful to say this, but I'm not sure that some of my classmates from my college ambulance course, or those I worked with when I was on the cars would fully appreciate your writing. Don't know why, perhaps because they've been on the road so long they've become so numb or that their protective armour is permanently on keeping them from feeling anything.
My dad used to tell me that if he ever started to feel nothing for his patients, or if he felt he was going on 'just another BS call", that was the time to hang up his stethescope.

Your writing is so crystalline in it's clarity, it almost hurts (if that makes any sense). I feel almost proprietary about your blog, it touches me so deep down, I don't want to share it for fear of opening up myself to scrutiny (which sounds a little odd, seeing as those with whom I don't want to share your blog are my friends, who SHOULD know me and my failings!!)

Funnily enough, it also gives me a resounding kick in my butt, reminding me that in my short time on the rigs I could have been so much more sympathetic/empathetic and less judgmental about people. That was then, this is now, but this kick in the arse will have a long term effect on how I do my job and how I live my life.

Ok, 'nuff of the heavy stuff...I need to start putting some of my ambo and fire control experiences down on paper. Who knows, maybe one day I'll be able to 'rite real gud like yu!"


Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks Pat. It's very kind of you to write such an effusive and supportive comment. I really appreciate it.

I'd say let your friends know about the blog (but then I would say that, wouldn't I?) It's definitely not for everyone, though. It's got quite a dense, literary style, which god knows I've tried to leaven, but it just seems as if I'm stuck with it.

And then I deliberately back pedal the politics and the technicalities, because I figure they'll only be of real interest to people who work in the field, and first and foremost my aim is to get across the human situations rather than the strictly service.

So it's not a universal ER read, if you see what I mean.

I think I'm definitely with your Dad on the 'know when it's time to quit' front. I get as annoyed and frustrated as anyone else, but essentially I'm managing to hang on to the reason why I joined up, which is that I like dealing with people and helping out where I can. (What a Polyanna). Plus I like driving on the wrong side of the road and a spot of B&E, but that's an unofficial perk.

Writing the blog def helps me cope, anyway. It helps keep me awake to some of the stories you come across (and helps me remember them, too).

Thanks again for your lovely comment, Pat. :0)