Doctors tracked Big Brother-style

The Suffolk Accident Rescue Service (SARS) saves lives. And with the backing of the Evening Star, our readers have raised thousands for the Ipswich-based charity.

By Tracey Sparling

The Suffolk Accident Rescue Service (SARS) saves lives.

And with the backing of the Evening Star, our readers have raised thousands for the Ipswich-based charity.

Today features editor TRACEY SPARLING takes a closer look at the latest technology that is helping SARS doctors provide the medical care that can make the difference between life and death.

HE was enjoying a sumptuous Chinese meal, while a team of people many miles away watched his every move.

As Suffolk Accident Rescue Service (SARS) doctor Paul Silverston put down his chopsticks and reached for his car keys, an operator at the ambulance control room in Norwich was glued to his computer screen.

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A little triangle symbol had popped up to show where the GP was.

It was a memorable moment in the history of a Big Brother technology which is bringing huge rewards for the East Anglian Ambulance NHS Trust.

An Ipswich-based charity, SARS trains and equips 82 doctors, making the service the largest Immediate Care scheme in the country.

In 2000 Evening Star readers raised enough money to buy vital equipment for SARS, in 2001 you raised £30,000 and the charity was also the subject of our Christmas Save a Life appeal in 2002.

Thanks to the latest technology, the trust tracks the volunteer SARS doctors so it can call on them as an extra resource when its ambulances are otherwise engaged or too far away.

“I suppose it is a bit Big Brother,” Dr Silverston admitted with a laugh, “and it does have its ups and its downsides - with one or two hilarious incidents along the way.”

He describes the time when he was taking a colleague out for lunch, and said: “We decided to have Chinese and I pulled up outside in my car. When we got back in afterwards, and started moving again, ambulance control were straight on the phone. The voice said 'we know where you are.'

“I said 'yes, I know you track me,' to which they replied, “no, we really know exactly where you've been.' It turns out they had been getting calls from people who had spotted my SARS car, and feared there was SARS virus outbreak at the restaurant.

“The next thing I knew, reports of the scare were on the radio and newspaper headlines the next day. I don't think the restaurant owner will ever forgive me!”

Just minutes in to our interview, Dr Silverston's bleeper goes off and he gets straight on the phone to the ambulance control room at Hellesdon.

It turns out that the air ambulance is just seconds away from the scene of this crash, so he is not needed on this occasion.

He gets a call most days, and has been on a serious car crash every Saturday for the past month.

“Very few days go by when the bleep doesn't go off - there are a lot of accidents out there,” he nodded.

But less people die in crashes every year, and Dr Silverston attributes that change to many reasons: “A lot of it is down to better vehicle design - when I first started accident rescue in the 1970s there were no seatbelts, airbags or sophisticated crumple zones.

“There also weren't any dual carriageways on the A14 and the A11, or crash barriers so there were more head-on collisions in those days. Then there's better medical care - from paramedics and within hospital - which raises people's chances of survival.”

Three weeks ago one of those drivers lived to tell the tale, after his car overturned at high speed on the A11 at Barton Mills. The driver tracked down Dr Silverston as the man who had saved his life. Dr Silverston said: “He was just standing there in reception at the surgery the other day, wanting to say thank you. That happens from time to time, and it is very rewarding.”

He also pops in to visit seriously-injured patients who he has pulled from the wreckage, during their recovery in hospital, and has colleagues in intensive care units who keep him informed about patients' progress. “It's so nice to hear they are doing well.”

Is there any time the eyes of the control room are not watching his every move?

“Accident work is by its nature very stressful, and I have to have some protected time in my life, so that I can provide good quality care. I've also got a day job in the surgery, and if I'm up every night of the week at accidents, having had had no sleep, I need time to recover. An exhausted doctor is no good to anyone.”

So he takes 'downtime' occasionally, and works closely with a doctor in Bury St Edmunds to ensure there is always enough cover for accident rescue on their busy patch.

Sometimes the calls come from further afield. He said: “A couple of months ago I was on my way home from Norfolk, where I'd been for a walk along the coast, when I got a call. They said: 'It's ambulance control here Doc, please take the next turnoff.'

“I didn't have a chance to answer, before the turnoff was upon me. They directed me to a remote farm in the middle of nowhere where a man was suffering with chest pains. The ambulance was still miles away, but when the crew arrived they were former students of mine. It's not that I provide any higher level of care, but I am an extra pair of hands.

“On rejoining the A1065 to head home, I was half a mile up the road when they asked me to turn off again. It was another job at the next village where a man had a heart attack. I was glad to help, but it turned the journey home in to a three hour marathon, rather than the usual three quarters of an hour!”

The interior of his estate car conceals a vehicle location system, satellite navigation, radio system and all the wiring is hidden beneath the seat. A small screen inset in to the dashboard sends him directions without the need to take his hands off the steering wheel.

In rural areas the advanced type of satellite navigation, coupled with a grid location from the control room, come in to their own. He gets specialist driving training to travel at high speed.

“It is very useful that the control room is able to guide us in,” said Dr Silverston. “Last time it was really useful was when I was going to a meeting at West Suffolk Hospital and they redirected me to an accident near Monks Eleigh. Two lorries had collided head on and one man was very badly injured.

“I'd never been down that way before and it was on very minor roads. I would have had to stop the car and look at the map every half a mile if I hadn't had the sat nav. The air ambulance had been flying overhead but hadn't been able to spot the crash because of the tree cover.”

At his base in Newmarket, Dr Silverston also gets called to emergencies at racing stables, and although he knows them all, it saves thinking time to be given their locations instantly. At night it's particularly useful because he doesn't have to stop to read road signs or house numbers.

“One of my patients was forced off the road and hit a tree. The location given was incredibly vague and it turned out to be a tiny back road between two villages. Ambulance control could zone in to my car's location when I got there, and direct all the resources to that point by downloading that location to the ambulance's sat nav unit.”

Dr Silverston holds the Queen's Golden Jubilee medal as a longstanding volunteer of the British Association for Immediate Care (BASICS, in recognition of his support of the 999 emergency ambulance service.

The volunteer doctors are supporting the cash-strapped NHS in their own time, and as Dr Silverston says: “The challenges of the modern health service don't get any easier.”

What do you think of SARS? Has your life been saved by the charity? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send us an e-mail to


Suffolk Accident Rescue Service was established in 1972 to provide immediate care and medical aid at the scene of emergencies.

Controllers working for SARS monitor all '999' calls coming in to the East Anglian Ambulance NHS Trust headquarters in Norwich. These controllers are quickly able to determine if specialist medical aid may be required and can immediately despatch the nearest doctor.

SARS doctors can often be on scene before the ambulance by virtue of the extensive network of members.

Around 60per cent of those killed in road accidents die within the first 15 minutes, so time is of the essence, particularly in a predominantly rural area like Suffolk. Treatment given at the scene also reduces the suffering of victims, and helps to limit permanent disability.

SARS doctors mostly attend car crashes, and medical emergencies but also horseriding and industrial accidents, and falls. Felixstowe is a hotspot for many calls, and also Newmarket.