Amid the sweat, heat and chaos of the final day of the Parliament protest earlier this year, three figures in light green overalls and body armour vests were often visible, usually head down, tending to those injured in the fray among protesters and police.
To Operations Support Inspector Rodger Gray, these men – Nick, James and Stu* – are the unsung heroes of the three-week occupation of Parliament.
They are not police officers, however, but paramedics from Wellington Free Ambulance (WFA), the first staff to take part in a leading-edge initiative between Police and WFA to embed paramedic support within specialist police groups.
The Tactical Emergency Medical Support (TEMS) team pilot was set up more than two years ago in recognition of the fact that timely medical treatment in active shooter scenarios and other high-risk situations can save lives.
Initially, two WFA paramedics were “on loan” to the Wellington-based Special Tactics Group, working side by side with officers during training and being deployed to AOS and STG jobs. That was extended to deployment with the Policing Support Units in the Wellington CBD on Friday and Saturday nights.
However, it was their role at the Parliament protest that highlighted the value an integrated TEMs team can provide, says Rodger.
Over the 23 days of the occupation and on the day of Operation Convoy (the final push to clear the protest groups on March 2), TEMS provided 16-hour-a-day medical support in Parliament grounds, treating a total of 130 people – police and protesters alike.
Their presence meant anyone in need of medical assessment and treatment could receive it immediately. That ranged from minor sprains and fractures, heat exposure, dehydration and blisters to more serious events such as chest pain, collapses, head injuries, cuts and broken bones.
They also assisted with Covid planning, implementing fire and chemical attack responses and updating medical evacuation routes.
Having already been embedded with STG, AOS and PSU, the TEMS team members were comfortable in the Police environment, although no one knew they would eventually be frontline in a protest that culminated in a violent confrontation that led to multiple injuries. But that’s exactly the sort of work they are trained for.
The TEMS team comes under the Emergency Planning Department of WFA, where the emphasis is on mass casualty incidents, usually natural disasters rather than riots.
All three men have previous military experience and say that knowledge, combined with the specialist training they’ve had with Police, equipped them well for the size of the protest at Parliament and the scale of the violence on the last day.
For the safety of its ambulance crews, WFA had decided not to send frontline staff and ambulances directly into Parliament grounds. Instead, it provided support from the perimeter with 20 paramedics, four ambulances, two treatment tents and three incident managers, while the TEMS trio were in the thick of the action.
Along with police, they were targeted with projectiles, unknown substances and vehicle ramming attempts. Police protected them with riot shields as they treated the casualties. Nick suffered a minor fracture to his foot after being hit by a rock.
Of 86 patients treated that day, eight were taken to hospital. The next day, 20 people were treated for injuries they had suffered the previous day.
At the start of the protest, the team was assisting people from the protest group, although some were confused about who TEMS were. “Some thought we were the SAS or international government agents, until they realised we were there to help them,” James says. Later, the protest group set up their own medic support on site.
Generally, Nick says, 90-95 per cent of the crowd were reasonable, but there were enough aggressive and threatening people “that we wouldn’t have wanted to be there without police support”.
“We saw a lot of courage from a lot of police officers that day,” Nick says. “There were officers with big gashes on their heads and broken teeth who were refusing to be evacuated. They wanted to stay with their mates. We patched them up and they would go straight back to the shield line.”
The value of TEMS to offer immediate medical aid in a high-threat environment is clear, they say.
A huge benefit of the scheme has been the “learnings” that both organisations get from each other. “It’s opened our eyes to what’s out there – the risks and the threats. On the other side, we have been able to transfer skills to police in terms of awareness of the medical side of things.”
That has included delivering trauma training to AOS and STG officers nationally, some of whom were among the first police to arrive at the stabbing incidents at the Countdown supermarkets in Dunedin and New Lynn in 2021.
It’s also about resilience, says Stu. “It’s not as if we encounter these things every day, but when we do, they often need technical specialised intervention.”
Day to day, the team are embedded with STG, using Police phones and linked into Police computer systems. They have their own body armour vests and helmets, and their own vehicle and can be despatched by the comms teams.
Most weekends, at least one of the team is working with PSU in Wellington’s CBD – a hotspot for fights and stabbings. The presence of TEMS means there’s no waiting for an ambulance when someone is hurt. Minor scrapes can be dealt with on the spot and more serious injuries can get immediate assessment.
It’s a win-win situation for police and the public.
Rodger describes the team and the work they do as world class. The feeling is mutual.
“Police has taken us in and been fantastically supportive,” Nick says. “It’s a privilege to work with these teams. They are very professional and maintain high standards. To be able to come into their world and support them is special.”
*Last names have not been used at the request of the TEMS team.