Lunch with Leon episode 42 – Garrett Emmerson

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Pulling together for a common cause

Leon Daniels OBE has worked alongside many people in his transport career, and when he was MD Surface Transport at TfL one of his ‘right-hand’ people was Chief Operating Officer: Garrett Emmerson.

At the end of May 2017 Garrett became CEO of the London Ambulance Service (LAS) after it was put into ‘special measures’ by the Care Quality Commission (not due to the quality of care but its organisation) with a brief to turn it around.

Just four days later LAS responded to the London Bridge terrorist attacks (initially reported as a traffic accident), then 11 days later came the Grenfell Tower fire.

Garrett talks with Leon about what happened during his first fortnight in post, and then how as the Covid pandemic unfolded in early 2019 LAS came under massive pressure.

He drew on his experience of organisation of the 2012 London Olympics, “but we had seven years to plan that and knew what was due to happen every day,” he tells Leon. “In the pandemic we had about seven days to respond to a single crisis as it unfolded.”

He recalls the day when he was told that he might lose 25% of staff due to infection, as 999 ambulance call volumes jumped from 5,500 on a ‘busy day’ to 8,500 calls on ‘many days’ and 111 call volumes tripled.

“It’s amazing what you can do when you put the entire resources into a project – I knew what you could do if you devoted the whole organisation to one single task,” he says.

He explains how a new call centre was built over a weekend, as LAS needed more call handlers. 

“We didn’t have the capacity to answer 999 ambulance calls. Normally it takes five weeks to train a call handler, then another four weeks of mentoring support. We didn’t have that sort of time. 

“From conception – how it might work – to implementation, we built a brand-new call centre over a weekend specifically for handling Covid calls. On the Monday morning, it opened with new staff – second year paramedic students – who had sufficient clinical knowledge to deal with Covid calls.”

Crisis was averted due to the “fantastic effect of lockdown” on the spread of Covid, buying more time.

Garrett also recalls how lateral thinking saw a call to The AA, who released all 177 of its roadside staff in London so that LAS could boost its 50 vehicle technicians to 230 and run LAS workshops 24/7 to keep ambulances on the road.

They also helped to commission new ambulances – previously done at two a week – to add 110 new and secondhand vehicles in just three weeks, by taking over part of West Ham Bus Garage.

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