‘Hope it’s nice and quiet for us all,” says paramedic Nick, at 6pm, the start of his shift. “Oh, you’ve said it now,” says his ambulance crew mate Katie,” shaking her head. “You’ve jinxed it.”
It was always going to be too much to hope for – nice and quiet, in Birmingham on the last Saturday night before Christmas. But Nick and Katie, Tash and Marek, Sui in the control room, Incident Commander James and specialist trauma team Kerry and Paul could never have guessed quite how not nice and not quiet it was going to be.
Things start normally enough for a busy Saturday night. An old lady has fallen out of bed but it doesn’t seem too bad, her daughter says. It’s brilliant having the recordings of the emergency calls; it throws you right into the thick of things and into the drama. The map graphic, too, pinpointing the emergencies, their nature and severity, with a ticking clock to show how long the patients have been waiting. Also showing what a logistical nightmare it must be to run an ambulance service.
There’s the report of a stabbing at Perfect Pizza; Incident Commander James is despatched to command the incident. “You can guarantee if anything big’s going to go off, it just falls when I’m on shift,” he says, speeding to the scene. “Unfortunately, I’m a bit of a shit magnet.”
Not this time; the reported stab victim hasn’t been stabbed after all. “Absolutely not stabbed. No,” confirms James. “He looked like he was still holding a pizza.” Well, it was Perfect.
There are now 37 patients in Birmingham waiting for an ambulance. A call comes in from someone with a bird in the house that wants to kill them. “What mental health problems do you suffer with?” asks the operator calmly. “You’re a vegetarian?”
Then the big one – you can tell from the shocked voices of the callers that it’s horrific. “Oh my gosh, they are on the floor, literally not moving.” And: “Oh my God, what the hell, there’s one, two, three people dead, four people dead.”
An RTC – road traffic collision – on Lee Bank Middleway in the centre of Birmingham, the worst crash these emergency services have seen in more than 20 years. Five ambulances are on their way, plus four fire engines, 28 police officers, full hazardous area response team, and Incident Commander James – 114 emergency service people in total.
Tash, who at 21 is the youngest paramedic there, is among the first to arrive with partner Marek. It’s a scene from hell: confusion, twisted cars, someone trapped, bodies lying on the ground, lives lost, others will be devastated. “Injuries incompatible with life” is a chilling phrase that’s used a lot. The pair set to work, doing what they can in a desperate, hopeless situation. “If I’m busy I can’t think, it’s good,” says Tash. “If I start thinking, then I start to become more human. You want to be a robot on stuff like this.”
Katie and Nick are ready to take the patient who is trapped in a taxi, the driver, to hospital, but his injuries are declared incompatible with life. In all, six people died, and the inquest into their deaths is, at time of writing, ongoing.
It’s a traumatic, harrowing, desperately sad episode of the Bafta-winning series, a reminder of the fragility of life. And a reminder of what these brilliant people do, and go through. They’re not robots. It’s maybe not such a big surprise when Marek says: “PTSD is more common in the emergency services than it is in the army.”
Tash makes a phone call after they’ve done everything they can at the accident and hands it over to the police. It might be after three in the morning but she needs to talk to her mum.
A little comedy relief – for us, not them – comes from an unlikely source: a shooting. “I’ve been shot, man,” shouts the caller-victim in a strong Brummie accent on the phone recording. “You don’t know what shot means? I’ve been shot!” He becomes abusive. “You want me to die, bitch,” he yells at the operator. When Kerry and Paul arrive, he takes against Paul. “I don’t want you here, I’d rather die,” he tells him. And then: “Why would they kill me on a Saturday night? Why on a Saturday night?”
That seems to be his big moan – not that he’s been killed (even though he clearly hasn’t), but that it has happened on a Saturday night. It’s so unfair, life. And death.