Page last updated at 11:26 GMT, Friday, 14 November 2008

Haven for casualties of the night

by Jonathan Morris
BBC News South West

Fight victim Grant Bates gets first aid at the field hospital
Plymouth late on a Friday night and the city's clubs and pubs are in full swing.

And as you might expect for a city of about 250,000 people with a university and a naval base, Plymouth rocks pretty hard over a weekend.

But as with any city of its size there are also victims of the merry-making.

Whether it is a face that needs stitching or simply a shoulder to cry on, Plymouth's "field hospital" is a haven for revellers for whom the party has turned sour.

The field hospital opened three years ago in Bath Street at a drop-in centre for the homeless.

Staffed by a policeman and a medic, it has become an integral part of the city's nightlife and opens on Friday and Saturday nights.

Union Street
What: 'Field Hospital' for victims of crime and violence in Plymouth
Started: 2005
Where: Bath Street
Why: Take pressure off A&E at Derriford Hospital
When: 2300-0430 Fridays and Saturdays
Staff: Emergency care practitioner and police constable

For the health services it relieves pressure on the accident and emergency unit at the city's Derriford Hospital.

And for police it is a chance to get statements from witnesses of crime before they disappear into the night.

The field hospital - dubbed Operation Vivaldi - is also a welcome refuge for officers on this particularly rain-driven Friday night.

Shortly after midnight the field hospital's first "patient" arrives.

Grant Bates, who has a cut to his nose from a nightclub scrap, has been brought in by patrol officers.

The 23-year-old is tended by emergency care practitioner Bryan Wright.

Afterwards Pc Ben Dear starts taking a statement, but it is soon clear Mr Bates does not blame anyone in the incident and he heads back into the night.

Minutes later Pc Dear takes a statement from a man involved in a separate nightclub fight.

Union Street
Union Street is the late-night hub of the city's entertainment strip

Later, officers will check CCTV footage against what he and any witnesses have said.

But the statement gives police a head start in the investigation.

"If someone has been arrested the officers have a statement ready to go, we don't have to wait a week to get it," Pc Dear says.

He says the informal surroundings of the field hospital, at the Shekinah Mission in Bath Street, are less intimidating than the city police station at Charles Cross.

Meanwhile, in Union Street, police officers keep an eye on rain-soaked revellers wobbling from club to club.

People can be brought to the field hospital from all over Plymouth including the Oceana nightclubs in the east to the myriad bars of Mutley Plain in the north.

Pc Dear says that Operation Vivaldi can see queues of people waiting for treatment, but by 0330 GMT he has only received the one statement.

Union Street
Union Street can also take its toll on revellers

The only other interruptions have been officers who make a beeline for the field hospital for recuperative cups of tea and coffee during the evening.

But the night is not as busy as some weekends with the poor weather and the economic downturn being blamed for keeping people at home.

Pc Dear said: "Even if this one incident that I've taken a statement for tonight is all that I do, it does not detract from what the whole operation is about.

"This one job will make it worthwhile. The guy received the medical treatment he required and I have the evidence so the crime can be dealt with expeditiously tomorrow morning."

I ask: "And if someone was too drunk?"

"That's an assessment I usually put on a scale of 1-10.

"If they are paralytic it would be no use."

Emergency care practitioner Bryan Wright has counted in hundreds and sent them back out with bandages or stitches, or just kind words.

Mr Wright said the field hospital kept him safe - a product of a radical change in drinking culture since he became an ambulance man 28 years ago.

Police can save time chasing up victims by taking statements

He said: "When I first joined the service you could go to Union Street as an ambulance man without any police protection.

"Everybody stepped back and allowed you to do your job.

"Now, if I was working on my own I wouldn't go to a nightclub unless I know the door staff or the police are on the scene because we get treated with very little respect."

He said the injuries had also changed.

"It used to be a bit of punching or maybe a bit of kicking. Now you get more bottles being used and occasionally knives.

"There used to be far more pubs and clubs in Union Street, but it was less violent."

As Mr Bates heads back into the night, he says the field hospital is "a really good idea".

"It's a bit more laid back - though I tell you what, I wouldn't half mind a fag."

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