Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the inception of Paramedics

04/03/2021



It was on this day, 50 years ago, that the first Paramedics in Europe started working in the field after six months of ‘extended training’ with renowned cardiologist and Honorary Fellow of the College of Paramedics, Dr Douglas Chamberlain.

The six ambulance men chosen to take part in the pioneering cardiac and emergency training programme were all based at Brighton Ambulance Station and were considered to be the best in their unit. They were put forward by Brighton’s then Medical Officer for Health, Dr William Parker, after Dr Chamberlain made a request to train a handful of ambulance men in giving effective cardiac arrest treatment.

From September 1970 to March 1971, the men, including Robin Friday, who is the only surviving member from the original six, were trained on the Coronary Care and Intensive Care units of the Royal Sussex Hospital, as well as on the general wards. They were expected to attend regular lectures given by Dr Chamberlain and taught how to interpret ECGs and the administration of four key drugs believed to be important in the management of cardiac emergencies, and invasive treatment of airway obstruction and of pneumothorax.

The scheme marked the birth of the first paramedic unit in England and across Europe, and when the service was launched throughout Brighton in March 1971, it immediately began making a difference and was very well-received by the public, GPs and unions alike.

The service continued for five years until the Department of Health (DoH) heard about it, said it had no proven value and shut it down. It would take a further three years before Dr Chamberlain and his colleague, Dr Peter Basket - who was also teaching ambulance staff in Bristol the importance of looking after the airways - could convince members of the DoH how important and necessary their work was.

In 1979, both men attended a conference in Harrogate on emergency treatments and took to the stage, uninvited, to talk about the vital work they had been doing. It was a brazen move but one which paid off. A period of time later, with the Department of Health’s full support ‘extended training’ was rolled out nationally with the focus on cardiac arrest care, before later including drug administration and intubation.

Recognising the importance of this milestone anniversary, Dr Chamberlain, 89, said: “It means a lot to see how far the paramedic profession has come in the last 50 years. Paramedics are critical to the best care. They are much better than nearly all doctors at dealing with emergencies, and they know it.

“There are higher grades of paramedics these days, the most important being Paramedic Practitioners. But herein lies a problem. Many hospitals offer them jobs that they make attractive, so there is a haemorrhage of the best trained from the service.”

Robin Friday, 78, added: “It was definitely an exhilarating experience being involved in the first ‘extended training’ scheme but daunting at the same time. We didn’t really know what we were getting into and I remember Dr Parker didn’t give us a hope of being able to do it. But fortunately, we showed him otherwise.

“When I first joined the ambulance service in 1962 you basically needed a First Aid certificate and a clean driving licence. But thanks to Brighton’s progressive approach we were regularly offered more training in areas such as child birth and resuscitation. The station was always coming up with new ways in which ambulance men could help patients.

“Now, when I see how much the profession has grown I’m very proud of my involvement. My daughter, Helen Horsley is a Paramedic Practitioner and compared to what she knows, my learning was very minimal. But it had to start somewhere and I’m very glad I was able to play a small part in the history of the profession.”

Bob Fellows, Head of Education for the College of Paramedics said: “My father joined the ambulance service in 1950 with only the ability to steer an ambulance through the streets, with a bell ringing away on the bumper and the requirement for him to get a First Aid certificate.

“Today, paramedics undergo extensive education including Honours and Masters degrees, to be able to respond to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for generalist ambulance work and indeed for speciality work such as critical care and primary care in G.P. practices and Emergency Departments.

“Little did these pioneers know that the path they blazed in the ambulance service wilderness would go on to become a highway for others to follow. We salute you.”