A night in the life of Norwich’s SOS Bus

Saturday nights are busy nights in the city no matter what time of the year. But with the weather having just taken a turn for the better, it being the first weekend since pay day for many and Norwich just having thrashed Scunthorpe 6-0, last Saturday was set to be busier than most.

And it was with that thought at the forefront of my mind I joined volunteers on the SOS Bus for the 9pm to 3am shift last Saturday night.

Volunteers reporting for duty on the SOS Bus on Friday or Saturday nights normally arrive at about 8.45pm in preparation for the briefing ahead of the shift.

I joined the team – which comprised a shift leader, two shift support workers, two first aiders, a mini-bus driver, two SOS responders, a security guard and an emergency care practitioner – for the on-the-bus briefing.

The briefing, which was taken by shift leader Lynsey Eagle, had barely finished before a door supervisor from a near-by pub or club was boarding the bus asking for help.

He said: 'Can you get an ambulance – someone has jumped in the river.'

And with that almost every volunteer on the bus began to sprint from the bus, parked outside the NatWest bank on Prince of Wales Road, to the scene of the incident at the Foundry Bridge, next to the Compleat Angler pub.

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In fact so keen were the team to get to the incident that Miss Eagle had to curb their enthusiasm by stopping some from going so as not to leave the bus without any volunteers. In the end five of the team – a nurse practitioner, two responders, a first aider and a support worker – went to the bridge incident.

Miss Eagle said: 'It's really difficult because the whole team wants to go down.

'They would want to all go down if they could but I have to hold them back.'

Confusion reigned for a while as a swarm of revellers and emergency services raced to the scene to try and establish what exactly had happened and how the casualty was.

But as police and ambulance crews moved in to deal with the man – who it later transpired had not actually fallen or jumped in the river but had been hit with a glass causing him to fall down the embankment – the volunteers returned to the bus to be ready for their next job.

While the SOS Bus was set up as a safe haven for drunk and vulnerable people, it does not deal exclusively with alcohol or drug-related problems suffered by young revellers.

Of course it can and does deal with those type of issues – as the night was to later demonstrate – but it also deals with other issues.

During the course of the shift several people stopped to ask volunteers on the bus for directions to the train station, the time of the last bus to places like Great Yarmouth or the location of the nearest toilet.

Thousands of people passed the SOS Bus during the course of that night – as they do every weekend – and almost all had something to say about the bus – whether they stopped to give donations in the buckets, have a picture taken in front of the bus or even inquire about becoming a volunteer themselves,

Donnie Pegg, 38, from Norwich, is a security guard with EventGuard who has been part of the project since October last year. Mr Pegg, a driving instructor by day whose primary role is to protect the medical bus which carries drugs as well as staff, said he rarely has any problems such is the regard people have for the bus.

He said: 'We have a few drunk people try and get on but I think our presence is enough in most cases. We have a lot of positive feedback – they come back after they've been treated the next week or the next month and say thanks and put some money in the bucket.'

The shift might have started with a bang, but despite the city being extremely busy the volunteers themselves were kept waiting for the next call.

Miss Eagle said there was no such thing as a typical shift.

She said: 'Some weeks we get here and there are clients waiting for us, other times we don't get any calls until the early hours and then we get a call at 2.45am which keeps us here until 4am when you were expecting to finish at 3am.

'We always say we want to be busy – when you're volunteering you don't want to be standing here. But that means there are people in need of help and you wouldn't wish that on anyone.'

The team does get a shout over the radio at just after 10.10pm to a woman with a head injury at the Marsh Harrier pub on Ipswich Road. The team's two SOS responders decide that they will try to get to the job and help in any way they can before the ambulance arrives.

Miss Eagle said in that situation it is completely their call whether to go or not.

She said the responders, who have to travel at normal road speeds, are told how far away the ambulance is and will take the decision whether to go or not.

When volunteers get a job, depending upon where it is in the city, a mini-bus driver will go and collect the casualty and bring them back to either the SOS Bus – where they can receive help for minor problems – or the medical bus which is equipped with oxygen, a defibrillator and other equipment you might expext to see in an A&E department.

Petra Dixon, nurse practitioner on the medical bus, said the patients she has seen have varied tremendously in the time she has been working with the project.

She said: 'It varies, it really does. Some really different wounds – glassings, stabbings, people being bitten or punched, bone injuries, injuries to hands and dislocated fingers – and a lot of the wounds we can deal with here.'

Mrs Dixon, who has even had to treat a patient who fractured his humerus bone after arm wrestling, was called on later in the evening when a takeaway worker hobbled in with a swollen knee.

While the night might not have been as busy as everyone had anticipated it did demonstrate the variety of work the volunteers do – and the importance of the project. A drunk young woman who had lost her friends as well as her bearings spent some time with volunteers on the bus, only leaving after being told where the train station was.

Another woman whose heels had taken their toll on her feet hopped on to the bus and made a donation to get a pair of flip flops which allowed her to walk more comfortably.

A young man who was looking rather the worse for wear at the bus stop at NatWest was taken on to the bus where he was provided with a bucket to be sick into and given the chance to try and sober up with first aiders and volunteers who organised a taxi to take him and his friends home.

The bus was also a source of salvation for a young girl, who suffers from asthma, and who had started to experience breathing difficulties. Both she and her boyfriend remained on the bus in the warm with help at hand until she felt well enough to leave.

My experience on the bus and of the bus was summed up by one reveller who put some money in the collection bucket and said: 'My children might need you one day.' And that is precisely the reason why it is vital the SOS Bus remains on the streets for another decade and beyond.

To find out more about the SOS Bus project or how you can donate or volunteer, call 01603 763111 or log onto www.sosbus.co.uk

To contact the SOS Bus's emergency number call 07833 505505.

Have you been helped by the SOS Bus? Call reporter Peter Walsh on 01603 772436 or email peter.walsh@archant.co.uk