About 600 work days were lost in a single year in the ambulance service because of staff absences due to assaults, the BBC has learnt.
There have been 2,278 reported incidents of abuse on staff since 2012/2013.
Verbal abuse or “disruption” accounted for most incidents, at 1,231, followed by physical abuse, assault or violence in 890 cases.
The ambulance service said there were 483 abuse incidents in 2017/2018.
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) said that while the injuries suffered in a physical attack may heal, the psychological impact on workers could last much longer, making “our staff fearful for their safety”.
“Patients need our staff to be focussed 100% on their condition and as such members of the public and their representatives have a role in ensuring that our staff feel as safe as possible,” said the NIAS.
It urged the public to back its call for the attacks to stop, and said those responsible should face “the full rigour of the law”.
Attack, or the threat of attack, is also an issue for the fire service, although to a lesser degree.
Separate figures obtained by BBC News NI after a Freedom of Information request show the potential threat of attack has meant fire crews have had to withdraw from a scene – or not attend at all – hundreds of times in recent years.
The ambulance service statistics show that between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018, there were 599 work days lost due to staff absences resulting from assault.
The bulk of the injuries related to sprains or pain in various parts of the body, but anxiety accounted for 56 work days lost.
In 2016/2017, 146 days were lost, and in the previous year, 504 days.
In regional terms, of the 2,278 reported cases of abuse since 2012, Belfast accounted for the highest number at 909, followed by the south eastern division at 457.
Meanwhile, the fire service revealed there have been 677 “recorded attacks” on its staff since 2013.
That includes 575 occasions in which crews faced a “hostile crowd”, but there were no injuries to staff or damage to appliances.
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) defined a “hostile crowd” situation as “any incident whereby crews cannot attend or, whilst in attendance, have to withdraw due to a perceived hostile environment”.
In addition, however, there were:
- 93 attacks resulting in damage to an appliance
- Two attacks resulting in damage to an appliance and injury to personnel
- Seven attacks resulting in injury
Alan Walmsley, assistant chief fire and rescue officer, said the job of a firefighter was “dangerous enough without this type of extra threat”.
“These attacks can have very serious consequences and can impact upon our ability to respond to other emergencies in the local area,” said Mr Walmsley.
The service was working closely with the community, elected representatives, residents groups, young people and local schools on this issue, he added.
‘You are the victims’
“These attacks and lawless acts are not only socially unacceptable, but they are also to the detriment of the whole community if the emergency services are hindered in anyway when responding to emergency calls,” said Mr Walmsley.
He urged people to be aware of the stark reality of their actions should they choose to attack firefighters.
“Remember, we may be the target but it’s you and your local community who are the victims,” he said.
The bulk of the attacks on the fire service resulting in injury to staff or damage to appliances happened in the north and west Belfast district.
Appliances were damaged in the district 40 times since 2013, with six attacks resulting in injury to personnel. On two occasions, both appliances were damaged and staff hurt.
In addition, crews faced a “hostile crowd” 194 times, forcing them either to opt not to attend, or withdrew from the scene in order to avoid the potential for injury or damage.
‘Procedures have improved’
The south and east Belfast district recorded 15 occasions in which appliances were damaged, and 132 instances when crews faced a hostile crowd. But there were no injuries or damage to vehicles.
Outside Belfast, the Londonderry district recorded 14 attacks on appliances and 104 occasions crews faced a hostile crowd.
Dermot Rooney, the Fire Brigades Union’s Northern Ireland regional chairman, described the figures as an “improving picture”.
“We’re down to small numbers of people being injured,” he told BBC News NI. “That wasn’t the case years ago.
“There’s been a lot of work done… engaging with communities and we’ve thankfully got that down to that level.
“But it’s something we’d want to keep an eye on.
“Procedures have improved as well in terms of doing risk assessments and withdrawing from incidents.
“It’s about making the decision that fire fighter safety is the important thing.”