What it’s like aboard the Norwich SOS Bus on one of its busiest times of the year - Halloween

David Powles spend a night with the SOS Bus. Picture by David Powles

David Powles spend a night with the SOS Bus. Picture by David Powles - Credit: Archant

Evening News editor David Powles was invited to shadow the city centre's SOS Bus for one of its busiest times of the year – Halloween weekend. Here's how the night unfolded.

David Powles spend a night with the SOS Bus. Picture by David Powles

David Powles spend a night with the SOS Bus. Picture by David Powles - Credit: Archant

It's 2am on Sunday morning in Prince of Wales Road and, for most, the Halloween celebrations are in full swing.

However, just a few hundred yards from the bars and clubs that are thronging with people, there are those who have seen their night out in the city turn decidedly sour.

For inside the yellow vehicle which makes up the city's SOS Bus are men and women in various states of distress.

On one side two volunteers tend to a young lady as she leans over a paper bowl. It's not the first one she has had cause to use. On the other is a chap who's been through that particular ordeal and is now being coaxed into giving over his name and details so he can be helped home.


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Next to him a man sits quietly contemplating how he went from one moment looking for a taxi, to the next having two friendly, and impressively patient chaps from the bus scoop him off the street, into a van and a sling placed on his broken arm after he fell down some stairs.

A few yards away, the numbers of people seeking solace is such that a bus shelter has become a makeshift extension to the bus and two further people, both young women, both seemingly very worse for wear, are being assisted. None of them will be allowed to leave until the staff are satisfied they have a safe way to get home, from where they can start their recovery.

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Welcome to a Saturday night in Norwich.

Although it may be Halloween, typically the busiest event on Norwich's social calendar, as far as the men and women who make up the SOS Bus team, these are the type of cases which make up their workloads 52 weekends of the year.

Tonight I've been allowed to join them as part of a desire to learn more about the fantastic service, as well as contemplate ways in which the newspaper may be able to help them continue and possibly even extend their work for years to come.

The night begins at 9.30pm with a briefing by shift leader Abi who is keen to make sure stocks of bowls, paper towels, blankets and water are high enough for a night which she describes as likely to be 'very vomity'.

Abi, one of around 50 volunteers for the service and married to fellow worker Paul, says she joined the team out of a desire to help those in a worse off situation than herself and from thinking that were she in such a bad way, she would hope there were others who would help her.

It's a reason given by many whom I speak to on the bus, although given what they witness on a regular basis it would be no surprise if they hadn't all turned teetotal after a few shifts.

The bus, which is accompanied by a medical unit should it be needed, and a van, which heads out to rescue people if they can't make it down Prince of Wales Road, is made up of around a dozen to 15 people on any given night, including the volunteers, people from St John's Ambulance, staff from the East of England Ambulance Service and Community First Responders.

It's clear they are a close-knit group, used to thriving in stressful situations, being calm under pressure and able to keep smiling when the chips are really down.

Following a momentary hiatus (just time enough to ensure tea and coffee is served to prepare people for the long night ahead) the first call arrives, this one from a member of the public concerned about a man lying unconscious in a doorway. A team of two carry out what they call a 'scoop and run' and before long he's in the bus where for the next two hours volunteers patiently try to bring him out of his slumber, tend to his sickness and eventually help to get him safely back home.

I ask volunteer Andy if he ever questions why he gives up some of his spare time to help others who have mis-used their own? It's quickly clear he doesn't think of it like that.

He explained: 'For me it's about alleviating that pressure on the NHS and it's brilliant the job everyone does to do that. If we can look after these people and prevent them needing an ambulance or going to A&E, that can help others and I'll know we've done some good.'

Though unfortunately in not all cases can they prevent such a thing from happening. The saddest moment of the night comes when a woman arrives at the bus, surrounded by her clearly very distressed friends, and has repeated violent episodes. The staff are left with no option other than to call an ambulance and she is taken to hospital.

The remaining six hours of the shift (the clocks go back meaning revellers get an extra hour to spend in the bars) are a blur of people falling over, people crying, people being sick and people being helped.

It could just be a one-off, but it's clear and worrying that tonight most of those helped were young women in their mid-twenties who had drunk more than they could handle.

The team are called out to help some very serious incidents like assaults on women, someone with serious heart problems and a young lady who is on her own and asleep on Norwich's ring road. Thankfully, a volunteer says, it was 'nice people' who found her.

But working on the bus does have it's lighter moments, like dishing out flip-flops at £2 a time to revellers struggling with corns or blisters, having to repeatedly provide updates in the city centre cash machine situation and rumbling one cheeky reveller so unwilling to wait for a taxi he lay himself at the bottom of some stairs claiming to have fallen. Fortunately the truth came out when a quick look at CCTV showed he had in fact walked down them safely.

By the early hours of the morning it's clear just how important a role this bus and the people on it play in our city. It can be easy on a night out to find yourself in a situation that is beyond repair and it's heartening to know these people are on hand not to judge, just to fix.

Norwich is lucky to have this service and those who make it tick.

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