Thank goodness for the St John Ambulance, says Gerald Haigh. It not only ministers to the injured, it can train teachers and children to save lives
Last September, eight-year-old Aaron Bone saved his mother's life when she had an epileptic attack in a Twickenham supermarket. He put her in the recovery position, with a pillow under her head, and asked for an ambulance to be called.
In the meantime he managed to call his father to tell him what was going on, while preventing the supermarket manager from comforting his little sister with a lolly containing nuts to which she is allergic. When the ambulance arrived he briefed the crew on the exact nature of his mother's problem.
Aaron is one of about 20,000 young people aged 6 to 10 who are "Badgers" - the most junior uniformed branch of St John Ambulance. Between 11 and 16-years-old they become Cadets.
St John Ambulance has its roots in a military order going back 900 years. In its modern incarnation as a voluntary organisation which provides first aid cover and training it really came to prominence with the growth of heavy - and dangerous - industry in the late 19th century.
Thus, in a mining village such as the one where I grew up, St John Ambulance was an important part of life. Some of the men of the village were uniformed volunteers; many more held first aid certificates; there was an Ambulance Room yards from the pit head. My own father took a first aid certificate in the 1920s. He loved to tell how, after he had mugged up on all the likely mining-type injuries, his first question was about the treatment of snakebite.
First aid by trained volunteers is still a major part of St John Ambulance's work. Uniformed members appear at public events - you can see them on the videos of the Hillsborough disaster, and they were active in the huge evacuation of Aintree Racecourse on Grand National day this year. This, though, is only part of the work. Paul Sherratt, market development director for St John Ambulance in the south west explains that "We're only on show in uniform for about 50 per cent of the time. We provide a great deal of training and advice."
In the south west, for example, he says that the St John Ambulance County Associations in Devon, Dorset and Somerset work together on training and development.
"We work with employers of all kinds, not just on first aid but also giving advice on such things as manual handling. We help generally with the problem-solving side of health and safety. There's no such thing as a standard workplace."
Much of this effort goes into helping teachers and their pupils. Schools, as Mr Sherratt points out, are sometimes unclear about exactly what first aid cover is expected of them. St John Ambulance, therefore, will train teachers in some specialist areas such as sports injuries as well as in general first aid, and in a recent development has begun a special 12-hour course for infant teachers, recognising that the recommended first aid treatment of younger children is sometimes different - resuscitation techniques, for example, are not the same as they are for adults.
First aid recommendations do change over the years, and the St John "Bible" - The First Aid Handbook - is now in its seventh edition. In 1901 the handbook gave instructions for dealing with hysteria in young girls: "Speak firmly. Threaten her, and if the condition persists, sprinkle her with cold water. "
Paul Sherratt believes that first aid training, although aimed at helping people in trouble, also prevents accidents by making people aware of the need to be careful. "That's one of the really important peripheral benefits. "
Last year 150,000 children completed the Association's Three Cross Award for school pupils. This award will be replaced later this year by a Young Lifesaver scheme linked to national curriculum key stages 2 and 3. These young members share in uniformed volunteer work at public events (in the south west, apparently, picking up people who have fallen from their horses in point-to-point races is a popular activity). They also act as general helpers, "runners and fetchers", in hospitals and in nursing homes. Some children are driven to enquire about membership by the feeling that they may have to attend to someone on a farm - a parent perhaps - well away from immediate help.
The St John Ambulance stand at Education South West will provide advice about all kinds of first aid and health and safety at work training.
St John Ambulance Association. 1 Grosvenor Crescent, London SW1X 7EF. Tel: 0171 235 5231