Ambos get tough after abuse spike

Illawarra paramedics are sick of being treated like "punching bags" by aggressive patients.

New figures revealed a dramatic rise in assaults and verbal abuse, a disturbing trend that NSW Ambulance Illawarra zone manager Paul Tonge said would not be tolerated.

A paramedic was spat on when he went to a Woonona home to treat a patient with a shoulder injury earlier this year.

In a separate incident last month, a paramedic on the South Coast was assaulted by a patient inside his ambulance en route to hospital.

"Paramedics are not going to be treated like punching bags," Mr Tonge said yesterday.

"The last thing we expect when we turn up to help somebody is being attacked. It is extremely distressing and demoralising.

"We are there to help the community, not to be verbally abused, intimidated and, on occasion, physically assaulted.

"In my experience, the feeling of betrayal that occurs when you are just there to help is overwhelming."

Mr Tonge spoke out to draw attention to the "three-fold increase" in the number of assaults on paramedics across the state.

There were 50 separate incidents of physical or verbal assaults on paramedics this year, compared to just 16 incidents in the same period last year.

The majority of the assaults involved patients who were intoxicated or drug-affected.

Mr Tonge said the NSW Ambulance Service encouraged officers to call police and warned cases would be prosecuted.

"Paramedics are there to help, they don't carry capsicum spray, they are not armed, not aggressive. The thinness of their shirts is what protects them and also the goodwill of the community," Mr Tonge said.

"I have to emphasise it is a tiny minority of people who feel they can verbally abuse, intimidate or assault paramedics and the vast majority bend over backwards to assist us.

"But one assault is one too many. It's just not acceptable."

Wollongong ambulance duty operations manager Norm Rees said while paramedics continued to be assaulted on the job, a campaign condemning violence had helped stem some of the abuse.

"There was a period a couple of years ago where we were being assaulted quite frequently," he said. "I think we had something like 17 local paramedics assaulted in three months.

"Now, if people are assaulted, police bring the full force of the law and really follow it up ... paramedics know it is no longer acceptable."

Inspector Rees said ambos had been encouraged to report any incidents to their superiors.

Health Minister Jillian Skinner also condemned assaults on paramedics, labelling the abuse a "low and disgraceful act".

She said legislation reforms had fostered cultural change and encouraged more paramedics to report incidents to their superiors and the police, and training programs were in place to assist them in dealing with potentially volatile patient situations.

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