You might only need them for a few minutes – if you are unfortunate enough to need them at all – but, when I went on a shift with an ambulance crew, I was amazed to see how much time and effort they devote to patients.
Shortly after arriving at the East Midlands Ambulance Service (EMAS) base in Mereway at 6.45am, I was in a vehicle with 33-year-old paramedic Danny Hone, from East Hunsbury, and 32-year-old emergency care assistant (ECA) Gavin Wise, from Earls Barton.
Within minutes we were receiving our first call: a Brixworth man who had collapsed with abdominal pain.
On arrival, Gavin and Danny helped him to his bed for an assessment before taking him to A&E at Northampton General Hospital (NGH), with his wife driving behind.
It was a busy morning at the hospital and there was a delay before we could hand our patient over to staff.
But the gap allowed me to meet paramedic Charlotte Hedditch, developer of the HALO (Hospital Ambulance Liaison Officer) scheme, which puts a paramedic in A&E to liaise with staff, streamlining handovers so vehicles can get back out.
The NHS-funded position, which began in November, also oversees efficiency and welfare of ambulance staff. Miss Hedditch said: “It helps take some of the pressure off when, for instance, HALOs can “double-up” patients to relieve paramedics .
“Other areas in the country use the scheme and it has improved our relationship with the hospital.
“But a lack of beds in A&E and delayed patient discharges are still part of a wider issue. We need better community support to look after people who need care, but not hospital.”
Measures under way to improve other areas of the service this year include a plan to employ 36 new staff and to buy new vehicles.
Every day you make an immediate difference to people’s lives.Danny Hone
Our next patient, at a surgery in Bugbrooke, was a former Irish presidential bodyguard and semi-pro rugby player who was experiencing neck pain and pneumothorax (air trapped outside the lungs).
Danny and Gavin gave him an oxygen canister, which he chose to carry himself while telling us about bullets he had taken in the 80s.
On the way to A&E, I saw first-hand how other road-users really respond to blue lights and a siren.
Danny said: “We have to be passive, but some drivers would be shocked at the effects of the delays they cause by reacting unsafely.”
After a brief meal break we went to a man who had collapsed in a park after using ‘legal highs’, giving an eye-opening demonstration of how damaging they can be.
Moments later we were called to an 87-year-old woman in a care home who was sick and weak on her feet. Clutching her bejewelled purse, she smiled all the way.
Nearing the end of a long day, Danny and Gavin left me at Mereway before continuing their 12-hour shift.
On the way, I asked about the logistics of deploying ambulances in the county.
EMAS is currently working on a modernised computer system to predict where most calls will come from through the day.
Describing the current system, Danny said: “When a call comes in, control is automatically shown which vehicle is nearest, even if it’s going in a different direction.
“This can get tricky as South Northamptonshire is covered only by resources in Brackley and Towcester.”
I left with a clearer view of how EMAS works, and the myriad of pressures on staff.
Danny said: “I am in awe of our staff who bend over backwards. Northampton could do a lot worse.
“I have a four-year-old and I am happy taking her out knowing that, if something happened, she would be in the best hands.”
“Best job in the world,” despite criticism, trauma and long hours
While the hours are long and the pressure is high, EMAS paramedic Danny Hone still says he has “the best job in the world”.
He said: “Every day you make an immediate difference to people’s lives.
“Even in the less critical situations, we can help take pain and panic away.”
He added: “In no other job are you welcomed into people’s homes to see their lives and families, and often they talk to you as if you have known them for years.
“You learn stories you would never find elsewhere.”
But it’s not always so cheerful. Danny explained that although most daytime calls were from the elderly or sick, they can be just as serious on a Saturday night.
Danny said: “While we have the chance to share the happiest moments, such as births, we also deal with the darkest. For example, when an elderly person cannot wake up their partner.”
Just like anybody else, ambulance staff can still suffer the effects of trauma, despite handling a serious situation professionally.
Charlotte Hedditch said: “Usually you get on with it, but there are some sights you can’t get out of your head.”
In particularly critical or abusive cases, staff still have to remain impartial.
Danny said: “Our job is to provide emergency healthcare to every human being, regardless of how they got into that situation. It doesn’t matter if you agree or not.”
That care itself has changed over the years and paramedics now take on a more clinical role, often administering drugs and using machines such as heart monitors, as well as transporting patients to hospital.
But problems can still arise for staff from higher up. Danny said: “We don’t always know what we are supposed to be doing as a team. There are staff members who were employed at a different time and were required to do different things, so good management communication is essential.
“But our latest CEO, Sue Noyes, has been very good at keeping in touch with us.”
Danny explained that another issue was public perception, which often mistook queueing at A&E for slacking. He said: “We can work up to 10 hours without stopping for food, and ocassionally we do need the loo or a drink. We never strike because we cannot afford to reduce our service, but public complaints are demoralising and can make staff lose sight of why they are in the job - we need to break that cycle.”