Emergency Services: Day of Recognition

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 17th September 2013.

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Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin 4:00 pm, 17th September 2013

The next item on the Order Paper is a motion regarding a day of recognition for the emergency services.  The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour 30 minutes for the debate.  The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech.  All other speakers will have five minutes.

Photo of Karen McKevitt Karen McKevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the valuable and life-saving work of the emergency services; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to set aside an annual day of recognition, beginning with Michaelmas Day on 29 September 2013, in order to create a lasting legacy of the World Police and Fire Games 2013.

I thank the Minister of Health for being in attendance for the debate this afternoon.

The motion before the House is a wonderful opportunity to recognise and honour all the brave members of our emergency services and put in place a lasting legacy of the very successful World Police and Fire Games.  The games featured almost 7,000 competitors across 56 sports at 41 venues, with 3,500 volunteers who ensured that all ran smoothly.  The games have been quite accurately described as the friendliest games ever.  They had great support from all in our community who came out across the North to support the events.

As I watched the numerous events, it was evident to me that the people who came out in support were not just merely there to shout for one team over the other or to cheer for a particular country: they were there in admiration of the roles that the participants — retired or current members of the emergency services — had in society and their sacrifice and unselfishness in saving lives.

I believe that all of us will need to make that 999 call at some point in our lives, be it because of a road accident, an accident at sea, someone taking ill suddenly or even a fire.  It is comforting and reassuring to know that there are teams of people on hand who are qualified and keen to provide a lifeline in emergency situations.

The 999 emergency service celebrated its seventy-sixth birthday this year.  The service was launched in the UK on 30 June 1937.  The number of 999 calls has increased from more than 1,000 in the first week of the service to an average of 597,000 calls a week across the UK. 

Of all the calls that are passed to the emergency services, 52% go to the police; 41% go to the Ambulance Service; 6% go to the Fire and Rescue Service; and 1% goes to the Coastguard.  An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 emergency calls are made in Northern Ireland weekly.

We in the Assembly know more than most about the cost of those calls.  More importantly, we have heard in great detail about the cost of bogus and hoax calls, which not only place a major burden on our finances but put lives at risk by tying up resources.  The other negative aspect for emergency responders is the number of attacks on their personnel.  Ambulance personnel, firefighters, police and even paramedics have been attacked while attending or being lured to emergency locations.  I believe that both those abuses could be reduced or eliminated by promoting and celebrating our emergency services' work.  The dedication of a special day in honour of and tribute to all dedicated and brave emergency workers, combined with a campaign to highlight the obscenity of making a hoax call or attacking responders, will help to educate anyone capable of such an offence. 

When considering tabling the motion, I felt myself slipping back in time to my schooldays, and I asked myself the questions that I know a certain form teacher would have asked me:  who, what, when, where, why and how? 

Who are we honouring?  Members of the Northern Ireland Police Service, Fire and Rescue Service, Ambulance Service, the Coastguard — collectively, the emergency services — the RNLI, mountain rescue and all other search and rescue bodies will be recognised on this day, so there should be support for the services of all the main groups of responders.


What are we celebrating?  We are celebrating and honouring the dedication and sacrifice of everyone who devotes their life to protect others, as well as the legacy and success of the World Police and Fire Games.

When will we commentate it?  On 29 September, which is Michaelmas Day.  As protector and defender against evil, St Michael is often seen as the patron saint for law enforcement and is one of the most common icons used on police uniforms.  He is also recognised by all the emergency services already.

Where will we celebrate?  Across the country, in every city, town, village and hamlet.  After all, it is those areas that are being covered. 

Why?  Because we need to show our appreciation to active, retired or other members and to those who have lost their lives saving others; to show that we do not take them for granted; and to mark the great success of the World Police and Fire Games. 

Maybe most importantly:  how?  As per the motion, I expect a number of Departments to adopt and support the proposal of a special day.  It will also create a great opportunity for support groups, charities and the organisations themselves to promote their message.

Given that we are celebrating emergency responders, I even came up with a special name for this day — "blue-light day".  I envisage the public purchasing and wearing a blue-light badge or emblem with pride, with proceeds going to support worthy emergency causes.  I did not know whether to be disappointed or honoured when I later discovered that a few counties in the UK already celebrate a blue-light day.  Nonetheless, I seek unanimous support to have our own blue-light day on Michaelmas Day on 29 September 2013.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP 4:15 pm, 17th September 2013

I welcome the opportunity to speak on today's debate.  At its meeting on 10 September, the Committee agreed that it would support today's motion calling for a day of recognition for the emergency services.  I thank the proposer for tabling the motion. 

The World Police and Fire Games were a success in many different ways, aside from what happened on the track, in and on the water, on the ice or even up and down the stairwells of buildings.  The people of Northern Ireland welcomed its visitors with open arms and generous hospitality, and the volunteers created the foundation to make the games the best that the competitors had attended, which they were often heard to comment.  I am pleased that the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure last week committed to making volunteering a legacy of the games. 

This motion, however, offers the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety the opportunity to add to that legacy, and I thank him for making himself available for today's debate.

Members will offer their personal reflections on the valuable and essential role of our many emergency services and their positive contribution towards our safety, health and well-being.  There can be no doubt that they are indispensable.  The professionalism and dedication of our emergency services is tested daily, and I am sure that Members will agree that this group of largely unsung heroes deserves some level of recognition and celebration for the work that they do.  It is right that, in the spirit of the World Police and Fire Games, this recognition extends to those who have served as well as those who are serving.

The president of the World Police and Fire Games described this summer's Belfast games as the friendliest and best games ever, and all our emergency service competitors and many volunteers can take pride in that.  The games not only provided a tremendous showcase for what Northern Ireland has to offer, they should also provide a lasting legacy for the emergency services here.  A fitting part of that legacy would be a special day to celebrate the work of the emergency services.  A dedicated day would have the added benefit of highlighting that work to young people, inspiring them to go into these professions and offering members of those professions the respect that they deserve.  There are those in our emergency services who do not receive that respect from certain parts of our society, and, on a personal level, I feel that that needs to be addressed.  If passed, the motion would send out the message to those in those services that we, in wider society, appreciate what they do for us at all times, in all weathers and in all manner of hazardous conditions.  Some things that they have seen and had to deal with as part of their daily job do not bear thinking about, and it is right that we express our thanks in some way. 

I appreciate the proposer's reasoning behind the choice of Michaelmas as the suggested day to mark the work of our emergency services, and, if a day had to be chosen, I understand the symbolic nature of 29 September.  However, it is perhaps ambitious for this to be in place by next weekend.  I hope that Members engage in the debate in the spirit in which the motion was intended.  This issue should transcend party politics.  I support the motion.

Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá leis an rún seo ar dtús.  The motion, on the face of it, is a valuable one that praises those who take risks and go into communities to deal with road traffic accidents, suicides, house fires, drownings and the like.  The motion might bring up a useful discussion point about the definition of an emergency service and an essential service, because there might be some lack of clarity on that count.  The proposer of the motion put forward as emergency services the police, the Fire Service, the Ambulance Service and the coastguard.  I talk to paramedics, and they told me that some parts of the Ambulance Service feel that they are an essential service rather than an emergency service.  The debate might bring out some clarity on that, and I would welcome that.

I do quite a bit of sea fishing in my spare time, and one of my favourite points is a place called Shamrock Pinnacle, which is about 10 miles north-west of Rathlin.  If I got into bother out there, I would like to see a lifeboat coming to get me.  So there are a lot of other people who may not be recognised in the emergency service but play a part in it.  Likewise, I do a bit of hillwalking, and we have to pay tribute to the volunteers in the mountain rescue service, as Mrs McKevitt did when she spoke. 

Three years ago, when I was mayor of the borough of Limavady, we had a snap storm at the end of March.  Within about an hour, the Glenshane Pass was blocked, and some 400 people were trapped in their vehicles. It was a very sudden event, and the heroes of that day were the local community and councils and DRD's Roads Service.  It is easy to see how this could broaden to include everyone who delivers a service.  I was proud of and pleased with the people who delivered that help.  We were able to open all our leisure centres and get hot food.  The community rallied round and local farmers and so on were there.  Likewise, we had a number of incidents of heavy flooding last summer, and people such as those in the Rivers Agency came out and did their essential bits and pieces.

There is a whole discussion to be had as to what constitutes the emergency services or, indeed, essential services.  I would welcome the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and others coming forward to give some recognition to the people who supply those services.  I agree with the Chair of the Culture Committee that it is ambitious to try to get something in place for 12 days' time.  It is something that we might look at in the medium to long term.  However, I know where she is coming from and I agree with the symbolism, although I think that St Florian is the patron saint of the fire service.

As for the lasting legacy of the World Police and Fire Games, the connection is a little tenuous in that the World Police and Fire Games was restricted to a certain extent to some services, and retired members of the services there were not recognised either.  There is a bit of an issue there.

I welcome the debate; I think that it is a worthwhile one.  The motion could have been slightly better worded, but we will take what we have.  I support the motion.

Photo of Samuel Gardiner Samuel Gardiner UUP

I doubt that anyone in the House would be churlish enough to withhold praise and admiration for the emergency services here in Northern Ireland.  The work that they do is so valuable that it would be difficult to put a price on it.  I am sure that no one would disagree with the sentiments of the motion, which seeks to establish an annual day of recognition for the emergency services along the same lines as Armed Forces Day, for example.

There is one matter that I would like to raise, which I am quite sure is at the back of the minds of most Members of this House; that is the way in which the Ambulance Service and Fire and Rescue Service staff are attacked by mobs when they come into certain communities to give assistance to members of those communities.  It totally escapes me how people can do that.  It would be quite wrong of us to talk today about having an annual day of recognition for the emergency services without raising this issue.  There has been a falling off of mob attacks over the past 11 years, largely due to education programmes that emphasise the way in which the emergency services help communities. 

There have been incidents of highly-charged atmospheres in the summer that has just passed, although the overall trend of mob attacks is downward, both in their number and their intensity.  Such mob incidents are not confined to Northern Ireland alone.  In Scotland, there were 80 incidents of attacks on Fire and Rescue Service personnel in 2012-13.  That represented a decline of 32 incidents on the previous year, so the pattern of decline exists in Scotland too.  The number of West Midlands Ambulance Service staff assaulted while working has also fallen by 16% in a year.  Physical attacks on staff fell from 210 to 175 between April 2012 and March 2013. 

It is not just a question of attacks by rioters.  Attacks are made on the emergency services by the very people they are coming to help.  The London Ambulance Service has a register of 226 addresses where staff are believed to be put at risk of physical violence, while the North East Ambulance Service has a list of 236 such addresses.  Figures show that around 163 staff across the NHS are attacked by patients or relatives every day.  An annual emergency services day would help us to raise awareness of the physical assaults that emergency staff often face.  I welcome and support the motion.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance 4:30 pm, 17th September 2013

The legacy of the World Police and Fire Games is certainly a most powerful one for Northern Ireland.  Many people have, quite rightly, dubbed them "the friendliest games".  The games served as an excellent showcase for the economic, social and cultural potential of Northern Ireland.  They demonstrated the natural hospitality of all the Northern Irish people to the world.  That can be only a good thing.  The games also have another important legacy that lies in focusing our minds around the much wider contribution and service made by the men and women of the various emergency services, whose sporting prowess we directly acknowledged in the games.  I take this opportunity to thank Karen McKevitt and Dominic Bradley for bringing this very important motion to the Assembly this afternoon.

The World Police and Fire Games should not be the only or initial trigger that leads us to recognise the critical role played by all our emergency services.  Unfortunately, we have had plenty of evidence and reasons for reaching those conclusions, especially over the past number of decades and perhaps even not so far back.  However, if it finally takes the success of the World Police and Fire Games to bring us to this conclusion, so be it.  In doing so, we should be mindful of the very particular context that exists in Northern Ireland in which the emergency services operate and how they have served all in this community for so long.  Sadly, there were times when they were unable to get on with their lawful and essential work due to the reckless actions of others.  Our colleague Sam Gardiner has just spoken about when the emergency services have shamefully been attacked by evil people.  As the Assembly will, no doubt, resolve to pass the motion later, we should nevertheless be conscious that, at times, some in the Chamber or in leadership positions in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in this society may not have made things easy for our emergency services through their lack of leadership or in being dilatory in standing up for the rule of law.

Moving from the situation on the streets, we must recognise that attacks sadly continue to occur against key workers, particularly in our health service in places such as accident and emergency departments, GPs' surgeries and the like.  Society has a collective duty to stand up against that and, at the very least, not to make life any more difficult for those who are operating in very challenging or stressful situations.  We must continue to support a zero-tolerance approach to that behaviour.  We must also be conscious that, in the transformation of our health and social services, the roles played by the members of the emergency services are changing.  I have in mind the functions that are carried out by our paramedics, all of which we fully appreciate.  Surely part of the agenda of respect and acknowledgement is giving highly trained individuals the opportunity to fully deploy and utilise their skills and training.

We should perhaps reflect on how grateful all of us are whenever we or our families and friends fall into situations that require the intervention of the emergency services, whether the police, the Fire and Rescue Service, the Ambulance Service, paramedics, coastguards, lifeboat personnel, air and sea rescue, mountain rescue and many more.  We salute the dedication and bravery of the individuals in our society who literally risk their own lives to save others.  On behalf of the Alliance Party, I fully support the motion.

Photo of David McIlveen David McIlveen DUP

I also welcome the opportunity to speak on this matter.  I thank the Members for bringing the issue to the Assembly today.  I have to concur with other Members that the principle of this motion is very good.  Obviously, creases will have to be ironed out, as they have to be, at times, with these things.  It is very appropriate, especially given the full success of the World Police and Fire Games here in Northern Ireland, that we recognise our emergency services and give them the credit that they are due.  The Member for Strangford just mentioned that it had had the ambition to be the friendliest World Police and Fire Games, and I am glad that that was achieved.  Indeed, Mike Graham, the president of the World Police and Fire Games Federation, acknowledged that that was the case.  So, I believe that Northern Ireland delivered in that event, and the people who organised it and the people who volunteered should be very proud of themselves.  In particular, the participants should be very proud of themselves.  I had the privilege to spectate at a number of the events, and I also had the privilege to distribute medals at one of the events.  I am glad that I was spectating and not competing.  Seeing how fast some of the cyclists could get up that hill was phenomenal; there really were top-class athletes here for that event.  I certainly can recommend it to anyone.

We have to accept the fact that our emergency services this year, probably more than any year, have not had to go looking for problems.  Our police force in particular has, this year, found itself caught in the middle of a lot of high-profile and high-risk situations.  The G8 was one of them, and, again, it passed off very successively.  Obviously, there have been parading and flags issues, which the police have also found themselves caught in the middle of.  Whilst it is fair to say that no side of this House could say that they have not disagreed at times with our police force, we have to accept that the police find themselves in a very difficult situation.  Therefore, it is very fair that we should recognise the danger that they find themselves in. 

It is not just our police force.  We read in June that, in Glengormley or Newtownabbey, an ambulance crew was attacked by a man with a meat cleaver.  When you see innocent health service workers being put in that position, you have to wonder whether a day of recognition is enough gratitude to show these people.  They do put themselves very much on the front line.

So, we support the motion wholeheartedly.  Obviously, we hope that the World Police and Fire Games model will be mirrored on the day that we recognise our emergency services in that the games were open to retired police officers and retired members of the emergency services.  When it comes to ironing out the details of the day of recognition for our emergency services, I hope that that will be the case.

I also hope that it will send out a ripple effect and that we will take the work of our emergency services seriously.  I hope that, when our emergency services come to this place and ask for help and assistance, they will be given, where possible, the help and the assistance that they are asking for and that we will treat them with the respect that they deserve.  I also hope that, from an education point of view, our children and young people can appreciate better the work that our emergency services do.  Picking up on what Mr Gardiner said, I believe that there is work to be done in that regard.  Recently, I was involved in taking a Sunday school class and was using as one of my props a fire engine.  I asked the children for the first thing that they think of when they see a fire engine, and a little four-year-old boy put his hand up and said, "Throw stones."  Although that is, in some ways, humorous, we have to educate our children and young people that these faithful public servants are here to help and that we should be giving them the respect and courtesy that they deserve.  I welcome the principle of the motion, and I look forward to seeing what the day will look like when it comes through.  I will leave the rest to the Minister.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I was rescued from the sea many years ago, so I hope Members will forgive me for being a little prejudiced towards coastguards.  Apart from rescuing me — I am not sure that everybody thinks that was a good idea — they have saved hundreds of lives along our coast, and in our lakes, rivers and mountains.  Let me say immediately that all our emergency services are important, and it is good that the Assembly has come to the stage at which it can debate a motion such as this and give it unanimous support.

Those people who make up the emergency services make enormous sacrifices to deal with life and death issues.  I can think of nothing more noble than being involved in saving the lives of other people who, for whatever reason, find themselves in distress and totally dependent on others to live or die.  Speaking on the motion affords me the opportunity to give thanks that we still have a coastguard service both in Belfast and at Malin Head.  Members will recall that there was a proposal to centralise the Belfast coastguard service in, I believe, Liverpool.  Thankfully, that plan did not go ahead, and the Assembly can claim some credit for that.  More recently, the Irish Coast Guard service based at Malin Head was also scheduled for relocation in Dublin.  Again, common sense eventually prevailed, and both coastguard services, which work in seamless partnership, continue to coordinate the rescue services that we so heavily depend on.

Sadly, last weekend, there was a tragedy on the north coast, leaving one person missing and presumed dead and another fighting for his life.  Again, as always, the two coastguard services were involved, not only in the coordination but in the provision of helicopter services to assist in the search and rescue operation.  That is noble, and it is a perfect example of cross-border cooperation.

Unfortunately — this has already been touched on — I believe that there is a lack of knowledge of the work of our emergency services, certainly in the case of coastguards.  I hope that agreeing the motion will mean that the public can be better informed of the work of all — police, fire, ambulance and others — who are involved in providing essential support in emergencies.  That most definitely includes the coastguards, who have been doing that work for the best part of 200 years.  Quietly and modestly, the men and women of HM Coastguard and the Irish Coast Guard have worked together, well away from politics or division, and have modestly saved hundreds of lives of men, women and children who are alive today thanks to the knowledge that they have of the sea, our coastlines, the tides, the currents, the winds and everything that is essential to successful rescues.  That sort of thing could not have been provided either in Liverpool or in some industrial estate in Dublin.

Let us have a lasting legacy of events around the World Police and Fire Games, but let us make sure that we include the coastguards.  Let us also rededicate ourselves to ensuring that never again will either coastguard service become the victim of centralisation, be that in Britain or in Dublin.

Our coastline not only is beautiful but is part of our tourism and recreation, our leisure and our opportunities, perhaps to simply stand and stare.  What greater comfort can we have than the knowledge that there are people working 24/7 to coordinate any emergency that may come along at any time of the year, be it on our shores, out at sea or, as I said, in more recent times, in our lakes, rivers and mountains?

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

The debate is about a small recognition for the emergency services that have saved lives, endangered their own lives and, in some cases, lost their lives to protect the general public.  In some cases, the very same emergency services, such as ambulance crews and A&E staff, take a lot of abuse from the public.  It is a small gesture to acknowledge, with sincere thanks, today's heroes and those heroes of yesterday.  Those in our elite emergency services have specialist skills and a dedication that is surely worthy of acknowledgement.  Many of us have reasons to be grateful to emergency personnel from all the services.  I believe that it is only correct that their dedication be publicly applauded and recognised.

Police, fire, ambulance, sea rescue and coastguard services are our protectors, rescuers and, indeed, lifesavers.  Sadly, this past weekend, my constituency saw one life lost, and one left hanging in the balance.  That is a side of the work of emergency personnel that is not often acknowledged.  To deal with such incidents is traumatic, and not one of us can imagine the psychological pressure that emergency personnel are under.  It is also harrowing for the families, who are in our thoughts at this difficult and traumatic time. 

With a successful Police and Fire Games behind us, it is appropriate to consider public acknowledgement of their actions.  I support the motion and commend it to all Members.

Photo of Ross Hussey Ross Hussey UUP 4:45 pm, 17th September 2013

I begin by paying tribute to all who serve in our emergency services, whether that be the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, the Ambulance Service, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the coastguard and, of course, others such as Lough Neagh Rescue — recently in the news because of the rescue operation that it undertook — the Lisburn rescue service and, of course, the one we have, Foyle Search and Rescue. 

When this debate was first mooted, I looked up St Michael.  I did not discover Marks and Spencer, but I did discover that St Michael is seen as the patron saint of all emergency services, which leads to the choice of Michaelmas Day, 29 September.  Unfortunately, I have a problem with that.  The last Sunday in September is National Police Memorial Day.  Next year, National Police Memorial Day will be held in Belfast.  It is a United Kingdom event; this year it is in Cardiff.  We have to bear in mind that the proposed day should not clash with that.  We do not want to take away from it; we want this to be seen as a united approach to all our blue-light forces.  Therefore, I ask for the date to be reconsidered. 

I declare that I am a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.  As such, I would like to see our Police Service recognised.  We know the number of police officers we lost in the past:  over 300.  We have lost officers since the formation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, including four in south Down in a tragic accident, and one in Londonderry in a tragic accident.  Fire officers are out there in the worst of times.  In my time in the Police Service, I was present with the Fire Service when the nights were so cold that balls of ice as big as snowballs formed on the coats of the firemen and women.  They are prepared to go out in conditions that mere mortals will not.  They go into situations that we would find difficult.  I would find it impossible to put on a breathing mask, yet they can do that, and they do their work effectively and save lives.  They are the bravest of the brave.  In many cases, they are volunteers.  We still have part-time firefighters.  We still have part-time police officers.  The RNLI lifeboat men are part time.  Those volunteers deserve to be recognised for the work that they do and have done for this community. 

Much reference has been made to the World Police and Fire Games, which brought all the various police forces and fire services to Northern Ireland for the friendliest of events.  During the games, a service was held on 4 August at St Anne's Cathedral to commemorate brave men and women who had fallen.  I suggest that, if we are going to consider a date and try to associate it with the games, why not the first Sunday in August, to continue what has been started?  During that event, the Assistant Chief Fire Officer said:

"We want to join with the relatives, friends and colleagues of the fallen Officers to show that their commitment to protecting their community has not and will never be forgotten.  The Fire, Police and Prison Services in Northern Ireland work so hard to protect our local community and keep people safe ... I hope that members of the public will join us in a poignant tribute to remember our fallen colleagues."

I suggest that the format taken for that is a formal recognition here in the city of Belfast, in whichever cathedral one would want to use, to remember those who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Many fire officers, prison officers and police officers were injured in the course of their work.  In the past year, there were nearly 100 attacks on staff in the A&E department of a hospital.  Those people deserve our recognition.  There are also people who go out in ambulances in all sorts of weather, and we have seen ambulances involved in collisions as they try to make their way from one area to a hospital.

I fully support the motion and the concept, and I put on record again my thanks to those people who are prepared to go out and help us.  My only problem is with the day and the date.  I ask for that to be looked at, but I have no hesitation in supporting the basics of the proposal.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

Like other colleagues, I support the motion.  Like everyone in the Chamber, I recognise the tremendous sacrifices that all our emergency services make.

The proposer of the motion and I share the same constituency.  We would probably say that we have it all in South Down; mountains and coastline.  However, it also means that we have inherent risks with those things.  We have the coastguard, the lifeboat, the mountain rescue, the police, the Fire Service and the Ambulance Service, and most of us, on some occasion, have needed some of those services.

One of the words used most in today's debate is probably the word "respect".  I think that is a hugely important word to use.  We should have respect, but we should also respect the rule of law.  Every Member of the House should support the rule of law, because we legislate and make the law.  I warn Members to not just be fair weather friends to the emergency services, not just condemn attacks in hospitals and then think that they are all right on the streets against our police force.  We need to respect both.  If it is right to respect our emergency services in hospitals, it is right to respect our police force on the streets.  You cannot have some Members condemning attacks in hospitals, rightly so, and then equivocating on attacks on our police service.  You cannot have people saying that attacks in hospitals are wrong, yet supporting those on flag protests who turned away medics or people with medical supplies who were having bother getting through to our hospitals.  There is too big an inconsistency in that argument.  You either support them all and support the rule of law or do not get up in the Chamber and be a fair weather friend to some of the emergency services.  Do all or do nothing.

I will not be found wanting.  I will condemn anyone who attacks medical staff in hospitals and those who riot and attack our police.

The motion talks about the success of our World Police and Fire Games.  Does everyone remember the headline as we were all going to bed on the last night of our World Police and Fire Games or the headline the next morning?  It was not that we had successfully hosted the most successful World Police and Fire Games:  it was that we had rioting in Royal Avenue in the very centre of our capital city.  That was what the headline was, and that is what we should be reflecting on.  This House should be condemning wholeheartedly attacks on all emergency services, from throwing stones at police officers and at the Fire Service, wherever it is.  We should stand, united in one voice in the Assembly, supporting the rule of law and condemning all attacks on the emergency services.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I think that we all are totally agreed in our support for the motion.  I have worked with the rescue services in Northern Ireland on many different issues, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for the work that they do.  However, I maybe come at this from a slightly different angle.  Not only are these men and women — I am glad to say that there is an increasing number of women — dedicated, brave, hardworking and diligent but they have to face some of the most difficult situations imaginable.

I will give three examples from South Down that have happened since I was elected.  A car crashes on Newcastle Street in Kilkeel.  Four young men are in the car:  two are dead already; one is very close to death and has to be cut out; and the other is in absolute agony, screaming at the top of his voice and pleading to be cut out of the vehicle.  Can you imagine the thoughts going through the minds of the police, the fire brigade and the Ambulance Service members who arrive on that scene?  They have to make life-and-death decisions about who to cut out and who to leave.  They are human beings.  They are people who, after a day's work, have to come home to their families and remember all that.

In another case, which I will simply say occurred in South Down, a young couple fell out, and the boyfriend decided to commit suicide by pouring petrol on himself and setting himself alight.  I spoke to the ambulance officers who came across that scene.  Can you imagine the incredibly difficult situation that that was for them personally?  They are not people who can go home, switch off and forget about such incidents.  They take it home with them.  They deal with situations that, frankly, most of us simply could not deal with because of the trauma.

One of the most poignant tragedies that has happened since I have been an MLA for South Down was the loss of the Tullaghmurray Lass.  That trawler went down off Kilkeel, leading, sadly, to the death of a grandfather, a father and a son.  The rescue divers had to go down and retrieve the bodies, which had been in the sea for several days.  Again, can you imagine the trauma that they faced when they came across that sunken trawler?

Those are terribly difficult situations for all concerned, and I pay tribute to the men and women who deal with them.  They deserve our full support.  They certainly do not deserve to be stoned, spat at or vilified when they go into housing estates.

A few years ago, I went into A&E at Craigavon Area Hospital unannounced at 2.00 am one Sunday.  I sat and observed the waiting room, which was absolutely packed.  It suddenly dawned on me that the only sober people in that room were me and the triage nurse, and I think that she was being driven to drink by what she was having to face.  Everybody else in that room had alcohol on them.  Indeed, the reason why the vast majority were in A&E was that they were intoxicated — they had fallen or been in fights or car accidents etc.  I remember two members of the emergency services having to physically sit on top of a young woman who was so intoxicated with drink and drugs that she was uncontrollable.  She was swearing, kicking and spitting at the emergency services members who were trying to restrain her.  That is what those men and women have to face.

Frankly, as Mr McIlveen and Mr McCallister said, one day is not enough to recognise what those people do.  Sometimes, particularly in the Fire and Rescue Service, they sit for long periods of inactivity, and then the phone goes and it is a mad dash to save lives.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I certainly will.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I join the Member in his condemnation of the attack on the A&E staff and so on.  However, does he agree with Mr McCallister that anybody who attacks the emergency services, whether with swords, stones or anything else, ought to be completely and utterly condemned?  Does he also agree that what all Members need to do is join in supporting our brave police, Ambulance Service, fire brigade and air-and-sea rescue, and that there should be no equivocation on the point that anybody who attacks our emergency services deserves to have the full rigour of the law brought upon them?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member will have a minute added on to his time.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I do not think that anyone in the Chamber would disagree with what the honourable Member said.  Those people are carrying out their duties.  It can sometimes be unpleasant, and it can sometimes be unpopular.  We have every right to complain to the Chief Constable or to write to the Police Ombudsman and say that we disagree with certain tactics that have been adopted.  However, the scenes that were alluded to brought no goodwill for the community in Northern Ireland.  It was a disgraceful set of circumstances.  Before Christmas, there was a very ugly incident in the Royal in which someone attacked staff working in A&E.  I was heartened that, when the case went before the courts, the judge, quite rightly, handed out a lengthy custodial sentence.  He drew a line in the sand and said,  "Enough is enough.  If you come before the courts for attacking the emergency services, you will go down."  That has to be the rule from now on.  We cannot countenance this any further.

Unfortunately, I was ill at the weekend and went to Daisy Hill Hospital A&E.  I noticed that the Southern Trust was paying security staff to make certain that the A&E area was safe for staff.   When we have so much difficulty getting the money to buy medicines and carry out surgery, what a waste of resources it is to have to pay to provide security to medical staff.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

That cannot be allowed to continue.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I would like to say how much I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to and recognise the work of our emergency services:  the firefighters, police, Ambulance Service and paramedics who serve the public of Northern Ireland.

The timing of this debate is very appropriate, given a particular incident that took place in my constituency.  Last Sunday was the anniversary of the incident involving the Spence family.  I recently talked to the father of one of the fire officers, and he told me that his son could, very often, still taste the slurry, as he had given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to members of that family. 

When the emergency services are called out, they will do everything that they can to save the life of others. In 2012-13, for example, 46,000 responses were made by the staff of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service to life-threatening situations.  I am sure that my appreciation would be echoed by everyone in the House who has not had the opportunity to speak today and by the individuals who received that vital and timely service, and their families and friends,.

I am sure that the Assembly and the public of Northern Ireland equally appreciate and value Fire Service personnel.  They attended each of the 3,000 major fires that occurred in Northern Ireland during 2012-13 and rescued 214 people as a result. 

The World Police and Fire Games were a tremendous showcase of what we have to offer.  There have also been, and continue to be, significant wider benefits and legacy aspects to those games, such as a greater appreciation of the benefits of volunteering, as Miss McIlveen pointed out; increased community involvement in sporting activity; and future major international events being attracted to Northern Ireland. 

My Executive colleague with responsibility for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), which delivered the games, is committed to taking forward new initiatives inspired by the games to create a lasting legacy and positively impact on the lives of local people.

We need to use sport as a way to inspire young people, particularly those who are disengaged and who, perhaps, throw stones at fire tenders and ambulance personnel.  DCAL officials are exploring ways to further the relationships that were built between schools, communities and the services during the games.  The aim is to provide a new generation of sports ambassadors and champion grass-roots sports.

Our police, firefighters, prison officers and customs officers who took part in the World Police and Fire Games events demonstrated that they are on a par with service personnel from across the world. 

Recognition for the very valuable contribution that our emergency services provide already exists in several forms.  For the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, we have the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal and the Queen’s Fire Service Medal; for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, we have the Queen’s Ambulance Service Medal and the Ambulance Service Medal for non-emergency staff; and, for police officers, we have the Chief Constable's Commendation and High Commendation and the Policing with the Community awards.

In Northern Ireland, we are in the unique position of having an integrated healthcare system.

Westminster looks positively at our model, and Ministers from other devolved legislatures value our experience and actively seek to learn from our experiences.

I want to acknowledge the very worthy sentiments of the motion, but I believe that it is somewhat restrictive in terms of whom and what deserves recognition.  That has already been pointed out by Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Dallat and others who wish to recognise the coastguard.  That is something that we need to look at.

I want to fully recognise and place on record my appreciation to all of the staff involved in the daily delivery of emergency services, but I believe that there is an opportunity to consider further the recognition of front line staff working in health and social care.  I am aware of the recent, well received, NHS Change Day initiative in Great Britain, and I know of the interest expressed by local health care professionals.  I believe that a similar local Health and Social Care initiative may be worth consideration.  That could showcase the very valuable services delivered by our front line staff through our integrated health and social care system on a day and daily basis.

Formal appreciation across multidisciplined and multidelivery organisations is a complex issue, requiring full consideration.  Unfortunately, I do not believe that the timescale suggested in the motion allows for that level of consideration at this time.  Therefore, although I am supportive of the thrust of the motion, I think that we need to give a little more consideration to all of the issues that have been raised in the House today.  Consequently, I do not think that we will deliver it for 29 September of this year, but it is certainly something that we should aspire to in a reasonable time frame.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I call Dominic Bradley to conclude on the motion.  The Member has 10 minutes.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  Gabhaim buíochas leis na Comhaltaí uilig a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht shuimiúil a bhí againn inniu.  I thank all the Members who contributed to this interesting debate.  In particular, I thank Mrs McKevitt.  It was mainly at her instigation that the motion was tabled.  I believe that it is a very good and timely motion.  Perhaps it needs to be pared, refined and redefined in some areas, but, as most Members who spoke agreed, the principle at the heart of the motion is a good one.  The time frame is probably not achievable this year, but, as the Minister said, we should give due consideration to this day being celebrated in the very near future; if not in 2013, then, hopefully, in 2014.

Most Members who spoke agreed that the idea of setting aside a special day to pay tribute to the work done by the police, the Fire and Rescue Service, the Ambulance Service, the coastguard and the various voluntary services, such as St John Ambulance, the Order of Malta, mountain rescue services, the RNLI and the Lough Neagh services — all of those groups; we are not trying to be prescriptive in any way — was a very good one, and they supported the idea.

Most Members took the opportunity to pay tribute to the emergency services, and they underscored the fact that their work saves lives and makes our homes, roads and, indeed, workplaces safer.

Once again, Members emphasised the fact that, quite often, the emergency services face horrific scenes in the course of their work and have to deal with highly stressful and highly distressing situations as they strive to save lives.  Indeed, that was graphically illustrated by Mr Wells in his contribution, and the Minister referred to the incident in which the Spence family members lost their lives. 

Other Members mentioned the fact that emergency services personnel work around the clock and are available to go anywhere at any time whenever the call comes in.  As public representatives, we must always do our best to support them and ensure that they have the best available resources and support to carry out their important work.  A day of recognition for the emergency services and allied services would be an empty gesture if those services did not have those resources and that support.  From the contributions of Members here today, it is obvious that they have that support from all sides of the House.

As I said, Members agreed that setting aside a special day would not only recognise the work of the services but would, in some cases, provide an excellent vehicle to highlight some of the issues around the services.  The day would be an opportunity to raise awareness of the work of the services through events in communities, schools, youth clubs, churches, and so on.  It would also be an opportunity to remember those members of the services who have lost their lives in the line of duty.  It could also highlight safety issues such as the provision of fire alarms, the reduction of speed on our roads and many other pertinent matters.

Unfortunately, as Mr Gardiner pointed out, we still have those misguided people who think that it is all right to attack members of the emergency services.  Perhaps a day of recognition will provide an opportunity to press home the important message that we will not tolerate such attacks.

Mrs McKevitt saw the special day as an important legacy of the World Police and Fire Games.  That sentiment was echoed by many contributors, not least among them the Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Michelle McIlveen.  All contributors underlined the life-saving role of the emergency services.  Mrs McKevitt mentioned the who, what, where, when and why of the special day.  Michelle McIlveen underscored the success of the World Police and Fire Games and said that they were the friendliest and the best to date.  She described the members of the emergency services as unsung heroes.  Perhaps the special day would give us an opportunity to sing their praises.  That sentiment was echoed by Mr Wells and others.

Cathal Ó hOisín mentioned the fact that there was a distinction between emergency services and essential services.  As I said, we do not want to be prescriptive in our sentiments; we want to be totally inclusive.  If it is not possible to have this event on 29 September — it would seem that it is not — we have the time to redefine some elements of the motion and ensure that it is inclusive of all those who should be included in such a day.

Mr McCarthy underlined the importance of standing up for the rule of law.  He said that there should be zero tolerance for those who attack emergency personnel.  David McIlveen of the DUP said that he saw a few creases in the motion but thought that they could be ironed out.  As I said, we do not disagree with him on that point.  John Dallat admitted that he was a little biased towards the coastguard because on one occasion that service snatched him from the sea and, thankfully, saved his life.  He welcomed the fact that the Malin Head and the Belfast coastguards, which were to be moved to Dublin and Liverpool respectively, were permitted to stay in their home locations.  He hoped that this House would, in future, oppose any move towards the centralisation of those services.

Other Members who contributed to the debate included George Robinson, who supported the motion and Ross Hussey, who cautioned against clashing dates and gave a very eloquent eulogy on the emergency services.  John McCallister underlined the support for the rule of law.  He said that we should not just be fair-weather friends to emergency personnel but should support them at all times.

As I said, Mr Wells referred to a number of actual circumstances in which emergency personnel had to make life-or-death decisions on the spot.  He also referred to the fact that the post-traumatic impact of those decisions stays with those emergency personnel, and said that we should support them in whatever way we can to come to terms with those horrific situations.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

In the time allowed to me I wanted to say that the other very difficult task that the emergency services have to do is to go to the homes of the deceased and tell parents or loved ones that someone has died in terribly tragic circumstances.  I would find that enormously difficult, yet these men and women have to do it all the time.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his contribution.

I would like to thank the Minister for his attendance today and his contribution to the debate.  He mentioned that there were 46,000 responses by the Ambulance Service.  He also said that the Fire and Rescue Service dealt with 3,000 major fires, and I think that he said that its personnel rescued 140 —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It was 214.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

They rescued 214 people.  Thank you.  The Minister said that —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member's time is almost gone.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

— he had some minor problems with the wording and definition of the motion, but that he was willing to work with us.  Hopefully, a special day will be set aside in 2014 for the purposes outlined in the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly recognises the valuable and life-saving work of the emergency services; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to set aside an annual day of recognition, beginning with Michaelmas Day on 29 September 2013, in order to create a lasting legacy of the World Police and Fire Games 2013.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the House to take its ease as we move into the Adjournment debate.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]