For Aimee Leo, an EMD at our Bracebridge Heath Control room in Lincoln, the realities of COVID-19 first began to hit during a busy shift in late March.
The 25-year-old said: “At the beginning of the year it wasn’t really something I was thinking that much about. I think we just assumed it was going to be like Ebola or other infectious diseases that have never really had a big impact in this country.
“But then I remember a shift, just before they announced the national lockdown, where all of our call processes changed about five or six times in a day. There were constantly extra questions that we had to ask each caller.
“For the six years that I’ve worked here we’ve pretty much had the same process and then all of a sudden, in one day, it was all change. That’s when I realised ‘Oh God, they are really taking it seriously now’.”
To begin with, callers had to be asked questions about where they’d travelled - with the list of affected countries changing regularly. Then new procedures were put in place around checking for the known symptoms of COVID-19 which, again, have changed over time.
Aimee said: “It was around that time where we really noticed our call volumes spike as well.
“With all the media coverage that was happening people were starting to get really worried. We’ve got boards up all around the control room which show you how many calls are queuing, and I remember there was one day when there were around 22 or 23. I’d never seen it like that before, on a normal busy day it would probably be around 10 to 12 at most.”
When the first lockdown was announced things began to ease in the control room.
Aimee said: “When nobody was going out to pubs or restaurants our call volume decreased dramatically, especially at weekends where more calls are alcohol-related.”
But Aimee says things have changed dramatically since the first lockdown period, with people no longer as fearful about going out or ending up in hospital. Call volumes are back up, which combined with staff shortages due to illness and people having to self-isolate, has placed extreme pressure on the control room at times.
She added: “There was one night shift where I was the only person answering call in the Lincoln control room after 2am. There would normally be 12 of us, it’s unheard of to have just one of us on (of course there were still other 999 call handlers working in our Nottingham Control Room, answering calls from across the region including Lincolnshire).
"It's also hard when we're not able to get crews to people as quickly as we would like to. Lincolnshire is an extremely rural area and our ambulance crews travel as fast as they can between patients, but our dispatch officers have to sit and look at more and more calls coming through knowing that we do not have the resources to send and knowing that these patients are sat waiting for help.
“When call volume is exceptionally busy, I’ve often had to spend the shift calling people back to advise them that their wait time may be up to four or even six hours. It’s extremely difficult to be that person that’s got to explain to a worried family why their loved one might have to wait that amount of time for help."
For Aimee, there is no doubt that this has been the hardest year she’s ever worked through and that it has taken its toll on the mental health of many working within EMAS.
She said: “Mental health is a massive thing. I think everybody is affected by mental health difficulties at some point in their life and the pressures of Covid can make you feel quite lonely and isolated.
“A big part of our job is carrying on and putting a brave face on. A lot of the time we are dealing with other people’s problems and it can be difficult to get the chance to process what you’re dealing with too.
“Our managers are great but there’s not always the time for them to take people out individually and see what’s going on, especially not when call volumes are so high. You might come off a call and feel upset, but then you can see that there’s people waiting on the phone, so you just carry on.”
Aimee’s mum also works for EMAS, as a paramedic, so she says it’s been great to be able to share things with someone who understands, but it’s also meant the pair have not been able to see each other as much as they would like, as her mum has a patient-facing role.
Aimee said: “It’s definitely been harder to de-stress. Our lives at the moment are literally work and home, and nothing in between.
“You don’t have the option to do any of the usual things you might have done to take your mind off work, so you do find yourself sitting at home going over things in your head. I’ve definitely found that I’ve taken my work home with me a lot more.”
Despite the demands of this year, she is optimistic for the coming year and praised the team spirit of her colleagues, who she says have shown real resilience and strength throughout 2020.
“It has been really challenging, but we’ve really pulled together as a team. We’ve made the most of the year and done our absolute best. It’s made us stronger as a team and shown us what we can achieve when times are really hard.”