Ed Griffiths and helicopterWhether he’s rescuing a badly injured climber on a mountainside or flying 200 miles out to sea to treat a Russian sailor who’s had a heart attack, Ed Griffiths’ job presents its fair share of challenges.

Now, as he embarks on a degree in Clinical and Professional Paramedic Practice, the former RAF helicopter crewman is facing his toughest challenge to date – to contribute towards the professionalization of the role of the Search and Rescue Winchman Paramedic and encourage his peers to take ownership of their profession.

Ed works in some of the UK’s most dangerous and inhospitable locations. When on shift he is part of a four-person helicopter crew based at Caernarfon in North Wales,  on call 24-hours a day to be winched down on a wire to provide care and assistance to severely sick and injured people in inaccessible areas.

“It sounds like a cliché, but no two days are the same,” says Ed, who joined the RAF in 2003 after finishing an Engineering degree. “I work in one of the busiest SAR (Search and Rescue) units in the UK; so far during my nine year career I’ve attended around 650 rescues, ranging from a train derailment to capsized boats to an exploding caravan, and each one has its own unique problems to solve.

“SAR Winchmen are predominantly aviators and rescuers as well as trained paramedics so we have a specific skill set that enables us to work in environments that are often unpredictable and chaotic,” explains Ed. “As well as clinical skills, we have to be able manage the whole emergency scene with our team. As a crew, we have to make quick decisions not just about how to get to a patient, treat them and get them safely away to hospital, but also about potential aviation, weather and fuel restrictions that could affect the rescue.

“We face different challenges to our ambulance-based colleagues, but we still follow the same training programmes and adopt the same practices and guidelines, which don’t always reflect the realities of our work. This is beginning to change now with the move to a higher education based model – we’re now being educated as well as trained and this is opening up opportunities for SAR paramedics to drive the profession forward.”

The role of the SAR paramedic has changed significantly in recent years. As well as moving from a military to a civilian role, the way SAR paramedics are trained is also being transformed. Traditionally, paramedic training followed the ‘treat and transport’ model, which equipped paramedics to perform clinical skills in reaction to signs and symptoms presented by the patient before taking them to hospital. This allowed them to develop advanced clinical skills but didn’t give them the underpinning knowledge to effectively manage the increasingly complex range of emergency scenarios. As Ed puts it: “We had the ‘how’ but not the ‘why’.”

The move to higher education training in paramedic practice provides paramedics with a greater level of autonomy, professional knowledge and a higher level of intervention than ever before, enabling them to manage the full range of incidents more effectively.

Photo by Mike Gibson

Photo by Mike Gibson

Since beginning his part-time degree in Clinical and Professional Paramedic Practice, Ed has been surprised at how little existing research there is into the role of the SAR winchman paramedic, and this inspired him to use his degree to add to the body of knowledge.

“For my first module I wrote about the changing role of the SAR paramedic, pulling together what I could find in books and journals and incorporating my own knowledge and experience,” says Ed. “It was daunting because I hadn’t done any academic writing for a long time, but the assignment got reasonable marks.

“This motivated me to submit it to the Journal of Paramedic Practice, because I realised that, even within the profession, not much was known about SAR. And I also wanted to show the importance of higher education to the SAR role. The underpinning knowledge you gain in higher education enables you to more effectively improvise the guidelines to suit the sometimes extraordinary situations you find yourself in.”

Ed is one of a new generation of paramedics who are keen to take on greater clinical responsibility and are excited by the possibilities presented by participating in higher education.

“Through education and research, we now have the opportunity to expand the role of the SAR paramedic to one of advanced practice,” says Ed. “We could be trained to provide more specialist care at the scene that would otherwise require a doctor to be present. Upskilling the profession could offer a more cost effective solution and empower SAR paramedics to take ownership of their profession.”

Ironically, most research into pre-hospital care is conducted by people in hospital settings, not by those actually doing the job. Paramedics, traditionally, have not had the knowledge or means to carry out research themselves.

“There is a need for evidence based practice research and to have our own body of knowledge to take the profession forward,” says Ed. “Higher education learning gives SAR paramedics the tools and confidence to ask their own questions and set the agenda for their own training and development in the future.

“There is a gap to be filled, and I’m really happy to be able to contribute in any way to the development of the SAR profession.”

Despite his commitment to education and research, Ed plans to continue doing the job he loves.

“It can be emotionally difficult but you manage it as a team,” says Ed. “I do think about the dangerous aspects of the job more now that I have children, but I think the perceived risks are greater than the real risks. We’re very well trained and well-rehearsed, both individually and as a crew; everyone knows what they and everyone else is doing in any given scenario so the dangers are minimised.

“For me, the positives far outweigh the negatives,” adds Ed. “I always say if I won the lottery, I’d buy a bigger house and a nicer car but I’d still go to work, I love the job too much not to.”

Find out more about studying Clinical and Professional Paramedic Practice here. 

You can access Ed’s journal article by visiting the Journal of Paramedic Practice.