“I greet my family as if I’m going to war,” says paramedic Abdul Waheem Martin in the opening minutes of ‘Red Zone Paramedics’, a documentary film that takes the viewer through the streets of Mitchells Plain on New Year’s Eve.
Emergency service workers (EMS) such as Martin are “soft targets” and “easy pickings” for criminals. “Ambulance staff don’t fight back,” he says in the film. “And we’re not carrying any weapons or any form of protection.”
The “red zone” in the film title refers to areas classified as too dangerous for ambulance workers to move about freely. They have to go in with a police escort. Red zones include Delft, Khayelitsha, Lavender Hill, Mitchells Plain and Tafelsig.
Martin was brought up in Tafelsig. He started volunteering as a paramedic at the age of 14. He became a full-time staff member at 20. Now at 31, he works in the community he grew up in. Tafelsig is marked as a red zone 24/7.
Leanne Brady, who directed the film and worked as a doctor in a clinic in Lavender Hill, says the purpose of the film is to look at the complex issues that affect the health system. The red zones, Brady says, mirror spatial apartheid.
At a screening of the film at the Tafelsig Community Centre in Mitchells Plain, a member of the audience said people sometimes died because of the long time it took ambulances to enter the area. To get patients to hospital quicker, community members had to transport patients to a satellite police station in Tafelsig, he said.
Shaheem de Vries, director of Western Cape Health Emergency Medical Services, said: “My belief is that the community offers better protection than SAPS. Having a police officer or security guard on the ambulance also won’t offer adequate protection. A single police officer on a ambulance will be just as vulnerable as the paramedics.”
In December 2017, paramedics marched to Parliament demanding better protection against attacks.
Mark van der Heever, deputy director of communications at the Western Cape health department, said from January to May this year, 12 attacks on emergency medical workers had been reported, including robberies, physical and verbal attacks and the stoning of ambulances.
Van der Heever said red zones were areas either where an EMS crew was attacked or where there was gang violence and recent protests. “We currently have 16 identified red zones … Should an attack happen in a particular area it will be declared a red zone… no EMS vehicle or staff will go into the area without a police escort, which will result in delayed response times and delayed emergency medical care in the area.” He said patients were informed of delays.
In August 2016, the department launched Operation Khuseleka, a staff safety initiative, “to encourage cooperation within broader society to help keep health workers safe … A whole-of-society approach can make a difference,” said Van der Heever. Ambulances also now have tracking devices and other security features.
“There have also been ten successful arrests made this year, due to the technology and help from the community,” said Van der Heever.
“The aim is to … try and spread the message that health workers must be respected. The main message will be that health workers are servants of the people, who need to have the space and protection to perform their duties,” said Van der Heever.