When paramedic Steve Evans rushed to the scene of the third drunk and unconscious teenager that evening, something snapped in his mind.
‘I’ve been in the ambulance service a long time, but I was thinking hang on, what’s going on here?
These are three 11 to 13-year-olds, from three separate locations, in the one small town.’
Not long after, he went out to a 12-year-old lad who had been abandoned by his friends, drunk, in a school playing field, in the middle of winter. The boy was lying on his back, liable to choke if he vomited, with an increased risk of hypothermia from the alcohol and cold weather. The playing field was dark and not visible from the road; all that saved him was a lone dog-walker who stumbled across him and phoned for an ambulance.
Steve dealt with the child, ‘but the question in his head was ‘why should his friends walk away?’
He decided to look into it, and came to the conclusion that it was down to sheer lack of knowledge: ‘Because first aid is not taught in most schools, because it is not part of the national curriculum, they don’t know what to do.’ Add the fact that they don’t know the recovery position to the fact that they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing and are frightened of getting in trouble with police and parents and you have a pretty clear answer on why they walked away, according to Evans. He decided he couldn’t sleep unless he did something about it.
Enter stage right: a photographer friend; enter stage left: young friends willing to be actors for the day. With props from the local off-licence, they produced a poster to launch the ‘Don’tWalk Away’ campaign. Next came the challenge of distribution: ‘I’m one person and I’ve got the whole of the country I want to say it to… so how do I get this out?’ he wondered. Deciding he needed to deal with ‘the top people’,
Evans sent a poster and covering letter to Tony Blair, saying
‘Dear Prime Minister, you have a national problem on your hands’ and he sent a second one to Alan Milburn – ‘Dear Secretary of State for Health…’
He cornered Congleton MP Ann Winterton and persuaded her to lobby the opposition. She had initially expressed interest and invited him to email more details – ‘but I said “better than that Ann, I have the posters and the covering letters with me”’. A week later he had a letter from Liam Fox (shadow Health Secretary at the time), saying ‘you’re absolutely right, I’ll back you when I can’
While events were gathering pace from Evans’ first round of contacts, he certainly wasn’t going to sit around and wait for things to happen. In the meantime he had been nominated as a finalist for BBC television’s ‘NHS Heroes’, for his work with schools and charities, so he asked if he could use the occasion to explain, on TV, how kids could put their friends in the recovery position. The BBC weren’t keen – ‘they said they didn’t think it was a big problem’. But before he could scratch his head, Evans was contacted by the Department of Health’s alcohol policy unit and invited to write detailed advice for their website.
The first line goes “don’t panic, the ambulance service is there to help you”, he says. And that’s the tone: non patronising, practical advice on putting the friend in a recovery position, clearing their airway, staying with them, and sending someone to the edge of the school field, park or wherever, to wave the ambulance in.
Evans wrote the advice with young people in mind, rather than lifting it out of first aid manuals.
‘It’s real life stuff,’ he says, ‘including clearing the area of broken glass, before you roll your friend into the recovery position.’
The posters ‘took off’ with a little help from GMTV, who sent a reporter to follow him around on a typical night’s duty (‘within five minutes we had stuff on the camera’) and a lot of help from the High Sheriff of Cheshire and the Rotary Club’s north west branches, who were generous in sponsoring posters – and then more posters, when they kept running out.
Evans has been fitting in talks to schools and clubs whenever he can – around his full-time job with the ambulance service. He’s getting round the ‘massive problem of being just one person’ by letting schools copy his video, but dreams of a fairy godmother appearing, offering to reproduce it.
In nearly three years, the campaign has distributed at least 5,000 posters. Evans offers a neat solution to organisations who want a batch of posters: they can contact his printer direct and have them printed with their own logo on. They pay the printer for them, which leaves Evans out of the equation and with more time to keep distributing more first aid sheets and spreading the word to schools and universities.
He may seem like a brave soul, to turn up at Liverpool’s toughest schools, armed with a video and posters – but elements of his routine are calculated to elicit co-operation. Not only does he have the video of himself on GMTV – ‘It’s him! It’s him! He’s on the telly!’ – but he’ll take no nonsense from the tough guys on the back row.
‘I tell them I went to school in Toxteth – which means I can’t read or write, but I can fight! anybody in this room!,’ he says. ‘They all suddenly show respect.’