The damage alcohol causes to drinkers is well documented, and recent years have seen a growing body of evidence attempting to quantify the extent of alcohol-related harm to those other than the drinker. A community that is often neglected in these discussions is our frontline emergency service workers. These are public servants whose working lives are dedicated to protecting our communities and improving public safety. Their actions often make the difference between life and death and this is all in a day’s work for them.
So, as a society we should be greatly concerned by any barriers that prevent our frontline emergency workers from doing their jobs properly. Anything that diverts police from attending to burglaries, or delays our ambulance crews from responding to cardiac arrests. Unfortunately, we are faced with a reality that, in times of scarce resources, our blue light services are being put under enormous pressure from alcohol, which is jeopardising their ability to do their jobs.
A survey of almost 5,000 emergency workers in the UK found that up to half of police, paramedic, emergency department consultant and fire fighter time is spent dealing with alcohol-related incidents.
Paramedics reported how they had to take ambulances out of commission to be cleaned after people had vomited inside, meaning there was one less vehicle on the road to respond to an elderly lady who had fallen.
Police expressed concern that late night licensing hours had pushed officer numbers into the early hours of the morning, so community policing was thin on the ground to respond to calls in the afternoon.
Perhaps more shocking is the frequent harassment and abuse faced by frontline officers. Three quarters of police (76 per cent) and half of ambulance staff (50 per cent) reported being injured while dealing with drunken members of the public, and half of ambulance staff (51 per cent) and a third of emergency department consultants (35 per cent) had suffered sexual harassment or assault from intoxicated people while on duty.
It is wholly unacceptable that our frontline staff who go to work each day to protect our communities should be subjected to such treatment. Action needs to be taken to prevent these routine alcohol harms.
Common calls from emergency service workers include tackling the cheap alcohol sold in shops and supermarkets and introducing earlier closing times for bars and clubs. There is strong and consistent evidence from around the world which shows that reducing the affordability and availability of alcohol are two of the most effective means of reducing alcohol harm. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has called on governments to raise alcohol prices and restrict access to alcohol in order to curb harms, including to those other than the drinker.
During my visit to Australia I have been impressed with the progressive closing times for pubs and bars policies pursued by the New South Wales Government, and most recently in Queensland too. In Newcastle, lockout laws have led to a dramatic reduction in emergency department presentations and Sydney’s Kings Cross district has seen a significant decline in alcohol-related assaults following the imposition of a 3am last drinks rule.
These are measures that, if proposed in the UK, would have the full support of the emergency services and community groups. In addition, many licensees would rather shut up shop earlier than foot the bill for staying open in the small hours, a time when takings are limited but the threat of competition from neighbouring establishments keeps them open.
Sending late-night revellers home earlier is a common sense solution to a problem that is costing our emergency services dearly. We can’t continue to allow alcohol to divert public resources and threaten community safety. The New South Wales and Queensland Governments should be commended for showing leadership and getting to grips with this problem. It’s high time other governments, including the UK, followed suit.
Watch the seminar
Visiting expert Katherine Brown, Director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IA) based in London, presents on ‘Alcohol’s impact on emergency services’ at the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) Canberra office on 25 February 2016.