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When to call an ambulance:

The NHS is struggling to cope. It has stretched funds and increasing demand, and the UK’s ambulance service and Accident and Emergency Departments need your help to avoid total overload. The national target for an ambulance is 8 minutes, but most patients wait far longer than this, even in life-threatening emergencies. This means that first aid skills are more important than ever and can be key to survival.

It is important both to be able to prioritise appropriately and only use these limited resources when absolutely necessary and to equip yourself with the skills to be able to administer first aid whilst waiting for the emergency services to arrive.

To avoid overloading the emergency services, it is vital to be able to have the skills and knowledge to recognise when someone is seriously ill or hurt and whether it is better to call an ambulance, go straight to A&E or calmly visit your GP.

The following information aims to help you with this critical decision:

If the casualty is particularly vulnerable, for example an elderly person, baby or very young child and you are seriously concerned – always call an ambulance. Children and older people often mask serious symptoms and their condition can then quickly deteriorate and therefore it is important they receive immediate medical attention. 

The decision you make will vary from case to case, but we would strongly advise you to administer First Aid and call an ambulance if someone:

  • Appears not to be breathing.
  • Is having chest pain, difficulty breathing or feeling weak, numb or struggling to speak.
  • Is experiencing severe bleeding that you are unable to stop by applying direct pressure on the wound.
  • Is struggling for breath, possibly breathing in a strange way appearing to ‘suck in’ below their rib cage as they use their accessory muscles to help them breathe.
  • Is unconscious or unaware of what is going on around them.
  • Has a fit for the first time, even if they seem to completely recover.
  • If they are having a severe allergic reaction accompanied by difficulty in breathing or collapse – always get an ambulance to come to you.
  • If a child is burnt and the burn is severe enough to need dressing – treat the burn under cool running water and call an ambulance. Keep cooling the burn until the paramedics arrive and look out for signs of shock.
  • If someone has fallen from a height, been hit by something travelling at speed (like a car) or been hit with force and there is a possibility of a spinal injury.

You don’t get seen any faster in A&E if you arrive by ambulance – you will undergo the same triage assessment in the same way, as anyone else entering the department.

Take someone straight to A&E if they have:

  • A fever and are floppy and lethargic.
  • Severe abdominal pain.
  • A cut that is gaping or losing a lot of blood, if they have amputated a finger or if there is something embedded in the wound.
  • A leg or arm injury and can’t use the limb.
  • Swallowed poison or tablets and are not showing any adverse effects (calling 111 can also give you advice from the poisons database – if they are behaving strangely or experiencing any symptoms from the poison; call an ambulance immediately).

Go to your Family Doctor:

For less serious and non-life-threatening medical concerns, you contact your GP or phone 111 for medical advice.

Most importantly – trust your instincts. If you are seriously worried, administer First Aid and get medical help quickly.

It is strongly advised that you attend a practical or online First Aid course to understand what to do in a medical emergency. Please visit firstaidforlife.org.uk, email emma@firstaidforlife.org.uk or telephone 0208 675 4036 for more information about our courses.

First Aid for life provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for medical advice. First Aid for Life is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made, or actions taken based on this information.

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