Space age suits for paramedics

They've been dubbed the "suits of doom".But these day-glow chemical proof overalls will provide vital protection for paramedics and hospital staff in the event of a biological warfare attack.

By Georgina James


They've been dubbed the "suits of doom".

But these day-glow chemical proof overalls will provide vital protection for paramedics and hospital staff in the event of a biological warfare attack.

The East Anglian Ambulance Service has recently taken delivery of 200 state-of-the-art chemical proof suits and four inflatable decontamination units, with hospitals being similarly equipped.

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There's little doubt the events of September 11 brought into sharper focus the need for NHS staff to be better prepared and equipped in the event of a chemical or biological incident.

Gren Morgan, emergency planning officer for the service, is taking the lead role in training paramedics, doctors and hospital staff in the eventuality of a chemical incident, be it war-related or an overturned tanker.

"We're training staff to pass on their skills to others in their Trust. It covers use of the suits and decontamination units, safety issues, knowledge of substances and the type of injuries," he said.

"Within our own service we will have three volunteer teams, one each in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, with 50 suits each and a decontamination unit each, leaving one set of suits and a unit as a 'regional reserve'."

Development of the equipment has been ongoing since 1998, and has been tested against a range of industrial and warfare agents.

"We could be dealing with a road accident involving a chemical tanker or a problem at one of the many chemical plants in the region," added Mr Morgan.

"And following September 11 and subsequent events in the Middle East, and the nerve gas incident in Tokyo, there is also the possibility of terrorist attacks."

But protection doesn't come cheap, the service's 200 suits and four units alone costing the government about £170,000, plus a further £50,000 earmarked towards a fleet of four purpose built vehicles in which to carry the equipment.

At the scene of a major incident with mass casualties, the fire service will look after the walking wounded, with the ambulance service concentrating on stretcher cases.

But Mr Morgan admits that the sight of dozens of lurid green-suited paramedics is unlikely to ease the anxiety of those caught up in a chemical incident.

"People are going to be traumatised anyway, and seeing us dressed in these suits will add to the situation, so we're going to have to work extra hard to gain their confidence and put them at ease," he said.

"Because of the chemicals, people would need to strip down completely, which raises all sorts of gender and religious issues.

"Therefore we will aim to have decontamination teams split 50/50 between men and women."

Ipswich paramedic, Jason Gillingham, recently underwent training at Ida Darwin Hospital in Cambridge and will now help train those who volunteer for the Suffolk team.

The training involved wearing both the old-style chemical incident equipment before stepping into the new-style suits.

Each of the £400, single-use suits contains enough air for 30 minutes, after which they need to be replenished with fresh supplies.

"There's a big difference between the two sets of suits, including improved peripheral vision – it's a bit like wearing a goldfish bowl on your head," said Jason.

"The air circulates better because the new suits are all-in-one rather than having a separate head section.

"The course was very positive and it took away some of the mystery of these suits."

But they won't help the paramedics to keep cool in a crisis. "It's pretty warm in those suits and you certainly work up a sweat when you're moving about and concentrating hard," added Jason.

The ambulance service's teams should be fully trained and operational by October this year.