Overworked, Under Pressure:

Overworked, Under Pressure:

Emergency responders can’t keep up with Dunedin’s drinking problem

Dunedin’s emergency services are like the roofs of Dunedin flats: they’re not built to support everyone at once. 

Already short-staffed, overworked, and overwhelmed by the pressures of Covid, emergency responders and campus caretakers are buckling under the pressure of student drinking culture. It is an unnecessary pressure, and it is one that will not easily be changed in a city like Dunedin, a city that probably has a BAC high enough to make it a fire hazard. Since St. Paddy’s, a day dominated by green clothes and red and blue lights, Otago University has been approached over and over by emergency service representatives asking for something to be done to reduce the rate of piss-soaked student antics. And they’re not sure what to do.  

Fire crew representatives told us that responding to couch fires costs them response times for medical emergencies. Ambulance crews told us that drunken students are stealing their gear and abusing their staff. Campus Watch told us that they feel guilt for every single injury they couldn’t prevent. And while all of them insisted that this was a minority of students, not representative of the student body as a whole, all of them told us that it has become too much to handle. And all of them said that alcohol was fuelling the fire, a message they’ve been trying to get across to the minority of students who create both mayhem and national headlines.

Henry* told us something we already knew: that when authorities try to get the message across to students, it doesn’t always work. Henry lived on Castle, and was not “some virgin first year trying to tell students not to drink”, because he enjoyed the culture plenty himself. He said that “Let’s be real, you come to Dunedin to drink”, but the majority of students don’t cause problems. Some are “out there to cause trouble, though, you can read them straight away”, he said. “But speaking of reading, I don’t know if they would even be able to read this article. They just don’t care”.

So how are emergency responders meant to get their message across, when the most troublesome drinkers, in Henry’s words, “aren’t gonna read your four-page article on why they should be a sensible drinker”? The people who might be reading this are “the ones who aren’t causing trouble”, who Henry suggested “probably don’t have much influence over the worst cases”. To reach the hardest cases, Henry suggested that the message might work if it came from “some D&B artist”, but “if the Proctor said it, they’d say ‘fuck you, I’m gonna do what I want’, becuase it’s all about authority”.

“They want to be top dogs. They come down from these private schools in Auckland or whatever where they're popular, and now nobody knows who they are, and they feel like they need to fight people and party and be cunts in general in order to maintain that reputation. But that absolutely does not make them the top dog, and I don’t think they understand that, or care.” 

Drinking culture is synonymous with Dunedin culture. It doesn’t have to be, of course, and for many, it isn’t. But look to the news, to social media, even to advertisements, and you’ll see it everywhere: students on the piss, piss on the streets, streets strewn with empty cans and once-unbroken bottles. It’s the Dunedin we’ve grown to expect.

According to Mikah*, who just graduated after six years in Dunedin, “In New Zealand, and in Dunedin especially, you don’t get asked what you’re up to tonight. You don’t get asked ‘are you seeing friends tonight’. You get asked ‘are you drinking tonight’.” During her time, most of the drinking could be done at student bars, where crowds could be at least somewhat controlled, drinks were cheap, and students congregated en masse.

These bars don’t exist anymore - at least, not in the way that they used to - and with the closure of student bars has come a rise in flat parties. And while it’s certainly easier to police 200 people at one bar than it is 200 people at ten 20-person parties, they weren’t a perfect solution. Mikah recalled that once, at Starters Bar, she was pushed to the ground in a mosh, stomped on by a bunch of boys, and “nearly had half the hair on my head ripped out”. When she was pulled free, she immediately reported the incident to security. She was told to leave. “How fucked up is that?” she asked, “I was kicked out. Not the boys that pushed me, but me.” And while she conceded that the overcrowding was “probably because security didn’t manage the crowd correctly”, she insisted that a supervised space for student drinking would not fix the underlying issue.

Some breathas (modern “scarfies”, for our older readers) have a sense of alcohol-inspired invulnerability, a sort of bulletproof booze vest. The “she’ll be ‘rightrite” attitude drips like backwash after every sunken pint. They’re the ones that say “Castle Street doesn’t get Covid”, or brag about how fast they finished that yardie while in the midst of throwing it back up. Despite this vest, and often because of it, they get hurt. 

In 2020, just two weeks into lockdown, an international student fell off his roof and broke his collarbone. One of our reporters heard the whole thing unfold from their bedroom: two hours of laughing, of thumping bass, and then a thumping bass that stopped the music, and a shatter as the student careened over his recycling bin and onto the front lawn. The poor American kid was too scared to call an ambulance because he figured it would be too expensive, but when he realised that he was in a country with functioning public healthcare, he called St John. 

Ambo’s were busy in 2020, and they’re busy now, too. In fact, all the emergency services are busy. The Campus Cop is busy. The Proctor is busy. Fire crews are busy. And students are still falling off roofs, smashing heads with bottles, all the stuff that you think of when you think of Dunedin flat parties. So when that international student fell off the roof, he was happy to be helped by a professional. He admitted that he felt bad for taking time from the medics who probably could’ve been dealing with new infections, that his completely unnecessary tumble not only ruined his prospective beer pong career, but also contributed to the mountain of student injuries that these services try to deal with. 

The rooftop tumbler said that the emergency services called him “a bloody idiot”, and he agreed. He wore a cast for the next two months and couldn’t play a single game of pong. 
Our gravity-bound international student was happy to see the ambo, but according to Doug Third, the service is not always warmly welcomed. Doug is the Coastal Otago Area Operations Manager for St John, and he said there’s been a negative shift in attitudes over the years in how his staff have been treated by the people they’ve been called to help. 

Doug said that his team has been “sworn at, shoved or punched, spat at, or been in situations that they should never be subjected to” while responding to student injuries, which makes him, to put it lightly, “pretty upset”. He attributed a lot of this to alcohol, and said that “The drinking culture has been in New Zealand for a while, but over the past decade we’ve seen a concerning shift in the way people treat each other and treat emergency services. People we treat seem to have less respect for themselves, their mates and anyone trying to help them”. 

“If we feel threatened or in danger, we’re going to leave the scene –- or not enter at all”, said Doug. And if a student is too drunk or is obstructing medical attention, “this will delay treatment until Police are available to support”. And every minute that they’re delayed is a minute later the crew will be to their next emergency. But this isn’t a plea for students to stop partying, it’s not Doug being out of touch with how the kids have fun these days. Doug simply asked that people have a plan in place in case of injury, “and be nice to ambos as well as other emergency services – we’re here to help”.

John Woodhouse, the Campus Cop, and Craig Geddes, the Otago District Asst. Commander for Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ), both said the exact same thing: “nobody is asking students to stop partying”. Despite what the breathas are thinking, that Big Healthcare is out to stop them from pissing up, that The Man is trying to take away their right to the froth, John said that “partying and the consumption of alcohol is a fact of life in New Zealand.” He gets it. He’s literally just asking students to think twice before doing something that could ruin their lives. 

We asked Jake*, a student here, what he thought of “Big Brother’s” approach to student drinking, and he told us that “that was none of the Uni’s business”. And to a degree, he’s right. The University does not legally get to tell you that you can’t drink. But these emergency service members, and Uni staff, aren’t trying to use the legal system to tell you this. John said that his pleas for safety come from being a father of three boys, and that parents trust him to “have the best interests of their sons and daughters at heart… fulfilling that responsibility is where I gain the most satisfaction.” Dave Scott, the Proctor at Otago, said that “We’re [trying to change this culture because] we genuinely care… we don’t want our young people to have their lives changed –- or worse –- because of a silly decision.”

Despite that, Jake said that he didn’t care. When he was in his first and second years, he wanted to drink, and he wanted to drink to excess. And throughout those years, Jake said he “didn’t have a bad thing to say about anyone I drank with. I surrounded myself with good people, good mates.” He couldn’t recall a single incident in his time in Dunedin that required emergency attention because of drinking. 

Of course, there was that one time that “we lined up about 24 glass bottles on the kitchen table and smashed them into a brick wall with a cricket bat”, but nobody got hurt that time. Even the next morning, when Jake “had to cross a minefield of glass just to make a cup of coffee”, not a drop of blood was shed, because Jake believed everyone was behaving responsibly. “I don’t see how anyone could’ve gotten injured unless they were stupid enough to walk in front of [the bat]”, he said.

And that’s just the thing– - when you’re drunk, you just might be stupid enough to walk in front of the bat. All of these emergency service members told us that the same student who goes to class, takes good notes, calls their folks and cooks a healthy meal are different to the person they become when they drink too much. 

John, the Campus Cop, said that “Drunken students often engage in antics, such as entering into flats and stealing food, alcohol and other items, never imagining that what they have done is burglary and is a crime punishable by imprisonment.” It can get dark, too. John said that there are students who have gotten “so drunk they have entered into a flat and gotten into the bed of a female student”, leading to an assault. “There are students who have been charged with these offences, and some have faced terms of imprisonment.” 

Of course, drunken antics aren’t always illegal, and they don’t always hurt other people. But that doesn’t mean they won’t hurt you. Sophie, a student we spoke to last year, probably never would have imagined that she’d give herself a black eye by trying to piss in the middle of the street, lose her balance, and fall on her face –- all while forgetting to take her trousers off. Point being: you might not be making your best choices. You might not have your best interests in mind when you’re 15 standards deep, and you might want to think critically about what you and your mates are doing, - because your life can change very quickly. And that’s what the emergency service folks are trying to say.

Craig, from FENZ, summed it up nicely. “We want to see the minds and mana of our students grow while they are here with us in Dunedin.  The types of changes we would like to see over the coming years is the reinforcement of a student community culture that promotes vibrancy and fun, but in a way that reduces the risk of harm and suffering among our student community.”

“We just ask: please, do the right thing. By all means party and have a good time, but please be kind to emergency services, and be kind to yourselves.” And as far as being “top dog” is concerned, Henry put it best: “You come to Dunedin, and you’re suddenly on a long leash. You feel like you can run anywhere and do anything. But you can’t. You run fast enough and far enough, and that chain is gonna yank you by the neck before you even know what’s happened. It’s cool - until it’s not.” 

*Names changed

This article first appeared in Issue 13, 2022.
Posted 6:23pm Sunday 29th May 2022 by Fox Meyer.