With colder temperatures having arrived and the festive period fast approaching, South East Coast Ambulance Service (SECAmb) is reminding the public of the need to use 999 wisely.

As the service continually prioritises its response to its most seriously ill and injured patients, just a small percentage of calls fall into the highest category of call requiring an immediate ambulance response.

More than a third of calls (36 per cent) SECAmb responded to in the last 12 months (1 December 2019 – 30 November 2020) were triaged as lower priority Category 3 responses (246,461), which ambulance services aim to respond to within two hours. Just seven per cent (47,514) fell into the most serious life-threatening category which require an average seven minute response.

Each day staff in its control rooms receive dozens of ETA calls for ambulance responses which are still within the timeframe set out by the 999 call taker. SECAmb is asking for the public’s assistance in reducing the pressure on its service.

People are asked to listen carefully to the call taker and only call back if a patient’s condition worsens. This helps ensure Emergency Operations Centre staff are as available as possible to answer new 999 calls and arrange an appropriate responses.

SECAmb Deputy Director of Operations Emma Williams said: “We typically handle in excess of 2,000 999 calls each day and behind each call is someone who needs help. The help they need and the timeframe in which they need that help varies and we, of course, must prioritise our response to our most seriously ill and injured patients.

“We will respond to all patients as quickly as possible but it is a small percentage of our calls which result in an immediate ambulance response. We ask that people follow the instructions of our call takers as our Emergency Operations Centre staff look to arrange the appropriate response. We also know that, in order to protect our response to our most serious calls, there will be times when lower priority calls wait longer than we would like. If this is the case we will make welfare calls to patients waiting for a response to check their condition hasn’t worsened.

“This year has of course been extremely challenging for the ambulance service. I have no doubt that the dedication and professionalism shown by our staff and volunteers will continue into the colder winter months and I urge the public to do everything they can to support us to manager our demand.”

Call categories

Category 1 – life threatening calls. The most serious category, including patients not breathing. We aim to respond in a mean average of seven minutes.

Category 2 – emergency calls. We aim to respond to these calls in a mean average of 18 minutes. Stroke patients will fall into this category.

Category 3 – urgent calls. Patients may be treated by ambulance staff in their own home. We aim to respond within two hours 90% of the time.

Category 4 – less urgent calls Patients may be given advice over the phone or referred to another service such as a GP or pharmacist. We aim to respond to this category 9 out of 10 times within three hours.

SECAmb has created a winter check list for people to ensure they are doing everything they can to protect themselves and others this winter.

SECAmb winter check list

  • Check your home medicines cabinet – is everything in date? Restock with essentials including cold remedies, pain killers, indigestion tablets and diarrhoea and constipation remedies
  • Keep up to date with any repeat prescriptions you or your family or friends need
  • If you or someone you look after is in an at-risk group – don’t forget to book a flu vaccination
  • Look out for any vulnerable family or friends – is there anything you can do to help them? Are there any hazards in their homes? Do their slippers need replacing? We attend falls to older and vulnerable people all year round
  • Wear appropriate shoes when outside especially during icy weather. We typically see an increase in slips and trips during colder spells
  • When was the last time your vehicle was serviced? If your car is safer, so are you
  • Carry some useful items in your vehicles such as a blanket and a spade for colder and possible snowy weather
  • Wear bright colours at night. Can you be clearly seen as a pedestrian or cyclist? If walking at dusk or at night use a torch
  • Heat homes to at least 18C (65F). You might prefer your main living room to be slightly warmer
  • Keep your bedroom at 18C all night if you can – and reduce drafts – if you’re under 65, healthy and active, you can safely have your home cooler than 18C, as long as you’re comfortable
  • Keep active when you’re indoors. Try not to sit still for more than an hour or so
  • Wear several layers of light clothes. They trap warm air better than one bulky layer
  • You should only call 999 in the event of a life-threatening or serious emergency
  • People who are not facing a serious emergency should make alternative arrangements such as using NHS 111 or seeking alternative advice from a GP or pharmacist so we can focus on those who need us most.
  • For further information on how to protect yourself and others this winter please visit https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/keep-warm-keep-well/