SOUTH Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (SWASFT) is reminding the public to respect its staff when calling 999 for an ambulance this winter, as new figures show that abuse against call handlers has more than doubled.

The SWASFT figures indicate that abuse against its 999 call handlers has increased sharply since the beginning of the full UK lockdown in March of this year.

Control room staff reported 77 verbal abuse incidents from callers between March 23 and October 23, 2020, representing a 133 per cent increase on the 33 incidents reported during the same period in 2019.

Ambulance staff reported a total of 289 verbal abuse incidents and 178 physical assaults during the same seven months, up 21 per cent on last year.

Amy, a 999 call handler based in Bristol, dealt with a rude and aggressive caller who repeatedly rang the emergency line demanding an ambulance.

She said: “The caller became increasingly angry and verbally aggressive.

"I sympathised with their situation, but their continual swearing and level of hostility made my job virtually impossible.

“We understand that many of our callers are worried and scared, and this fear can sometimes present itself as abusive language and an aggressive attitude.

“However, any kind of abuse makes our job even more challenging and will not be tolerated.

"Behaviour such as this is obstructive to a safe triage, and can hinder the giving of sometimes lifesaving instructions.

“If you ever need to call 999, please remember you are speaking to a human being who really does care and who will arrange the most appropriate and safe care.

“Please trust us, and help us to help you.”

Natasha, a 999 call handler based in Exeter, was also subject to abuse from a caller.

She said: “It’s rare to get through a whole shift without someone being unpleasant or nasty.

"The person started shouting and swearing at me immediately.

"Then he became aggressive and started making personal threats to me.

"He needed help, but refused to answer my questions.

"So I couldn’t help him and had to end the call.

"We are not there to be abused and shouted at; we are there to help people.”

SWASFT is expecting to deal with a high number of emergency calls during the upcoming months, due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and other winter pressures.

Although it recognises people often call 999 in difficult situations, the Trust is asking callers not to hinder its control room staff as they try to arrange help.

It also reminds people only to call 999 for an ambulance in a medical emergency, when someone is seriously ill or injured and their life is at risk.

A SWASFT spokesperson said: “Our dedicated and compassionate emergency call handlers deal with serious and life-threatening emergencies every day, which we recognise are difficult and stressful for those people involved.

“Although the majority of callers are polite and respectful, a small minority are abusive and aggressive towards our people trying to help them.

“Such behaviour is unacceptable, and can delay or even prevent us reaching someone who really needs our care.

"It can also have a serious impact on them, their colleagues and families.

“We are fully committed to supporting the health and wellbeing of our people.

"That includes offering immediate support to anyone who experiences violence and aggression on duty.

"It also means taking whatever action is necessary to prevent our people from harm and keep them safe.

“Please respect our people, and help them to help you.”