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Blood, Sweat and Beers

"Are we all ready to get sicked on?" : Patrick Walker spends a night with student-led volunteer group NightSafe

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Image Credit: Patrick Walker

It’s just gone 10pm, and all throughout York, the streets are filling with students celebrating the end of the winter term toil with a healthy night of clubbing and alcohol. For NightSafe, the volunteers who give their time each evening to support drunk or otherwise-at-risk fellow students, the work has only just begun.

Tonight, I’m shadowing a team of three NightSafe society members, armed with a defibrillator and a body camera, who will be helping clear up messes (both figurative and literal) throughout the evening. For Sam, Ned, and Molly, this is the final shift of around four in the term, but they’re nonetheless enthusiastic to get started. Their equipment and office space is housed in Eric Milner, in the old Vanbrugh buildings across the lake. The office features a computer for ingesting footage and recording the night’s exploits, several cabinets that house disposable items like medical gloves, sick bags, and foil blankets, and enough mini water bottles stacked in the corner to flood campus lake.

Having suited up in the infamous orange jackets, we head out into the freezing temperatures. We’re given a free ride to town by the First driver: it’s one of the many instances that show how much the complex, challenging work done by NightSafe every evening is appreciated by the staff that keep York running at night, from the police, to the venue staff. As we pull into the bus stop, Sam tunes his radio to the frequency that bouncers use to coordinate efforts throughout the evening. NightSafe are frequently called on to assist in situations that go beyond the bouncers’ paygrade.

It’s Sunday, and tonight our focus will be on Revs. Before that, we head to the river to check for any signs that someone might have fallen in, or be close to danger. NightSafe was originally started for this purpose: after the tragic death in the river Foss of York student Megan Roberts in 2014, and it emerged that 24 people had met the same fate in York’s waterways over the last 15 years. NightSafe still works with Megan’s mother, Jackie Roberts, to increase awareness and safety around the river at night.

Tonight the river looks relatively calm, and we head back to hang around the cinema sign, and wait for crisis. Shifts on the team can vary wildly, but team Leader Sam explains that, this term, the nights that he’s been on have been relatively quiet. “This year’s freshers have been pretty good. Even the nights early in the year have been quite easy.” This evening, most of our work would involve handing out foil blankets to girls wearing miniskirts and backless dresses without coats: a move that was far from sensible considering the -1 degree temperature reading on my phone.

The goal, Sam says, is to “not make the situation worse” for each individual they treat. NightSafe volunteers are trained in first aid (it’s actually a reason that many sign up,) but all severe cases, like party-goers with head injuries, are handed over to the emergency services. The foil blankets in our backpacks are very thin, and don’t actually do much to warm students up, but they help calm people down in the long slow line that is steadily forming outside Revs. I’m slowly finding it bizarre to be experiencing the whole thing sober. NightSafe volunteers get to see a completely different side of the city, from their utilisation of the CCTV network that completely blankets the city centre (nowhere, I’m told, goes un-filmed), to their more objective judgement of the better of the two kebab vans (it’s Oki’s, by the way. Apparently Deni’s is nauseating without the aid of alcohol).

Around 1am, a more problematic case emerges: a girl has been brought out of the club by her friends, completely intoxicated and barely speaking. She needs help sobering up before being bundled into an Uber. In the kitchen, we huddle round the Revs pizza oven for warmth as Molly and Sam begin the slow Process of talking the girl into sipping water and calming down. Both are trained in mental First aid, and they patiently talk her through basic breathing techniques, and offer her the hurl-bag until she’s stable enough to get a taxi home. We have to leave her beforehand: taxi drivers recognise the orange jackets now, and won’t take students that are being helped by volunteers.

Molly has really appreciated the opportunity to put her psychology degree to practical use. Talking things through with inebriated club-goers is a large part of the role, and her experience with it shines through in the calm, respectful treatment of the drunk students she’s treating. Ned stands behind us, filling out notes, and recording on the bodycam. For Ned, NightSafe is an opportunity to see a different side of the city, and to help fellow students when they most need it.

Another student comes to us cold and clearly distressed. She’s been abandoned by her friends at some point during the night and clearly just needs someone to talk to. Mental health issues develop at a pretty alarming rate for many of York’s overworked students, and it’s clear that as much of NightSafe’s work is about talking things through with people having a rubbish night out as it is the material support of flip flops and plasters.

At around 2.30am, a rugby bro is ejected by DoorSafe staff after getting his penis out in front of a female bartender in an effort to get served. Unsurprisingly, his efforts have not earned him a drink and he now hangs around watching people leave as we begin to help others. Door staff on student nights are employed by the Students’ Union, and DoorSafe has to run a tight line between keeping students happy, and letting the bouncers enforce club rules. It’s a challenging role, and they has had to get rid of staff in the past that have been too rough with intoxicated students. That said, DoorSafe on the radio, to ensure that the relationships between bouncers and students are kept fair. Venues in York also work together to coordinate against rowdy students, and will radio each other to stop certain groups from entering places if they’re believed to be a nuisance. The police listen into the same frequency, and NightSafe work with them in certain situations where volunteer safety might be threatened.

A large chunk of NightSafe’s funding actually comes from the North Yorkshire Police Community Fund, in recognition of the work they do saving time and funding for emergency services. The £2,860 grant is combined with a £5,190 grant from York alumni through YuFund, but NightSafe remains a student society without a YUSU grant, which squeezes funding.

Even tonight, with things relatively quiet, we’ve burnt through several pieces of disposable medical equipment, and I’m slowly realising that more money would help the volunteers out by allowing them to purchase better kit. As the night draws to a close around 2:30am , we find ourselves at the McDonalds tills chatting through the evening together. Sam is proud of the leadership experience and the extensive training he’s received through the society, which now enables over 40 volunteers to be thrown up on in the name of ensuring their fellow students are safe and happy. Another member, Alex, says he joined after deciding it would be “rewarding,” even “empowering” for his mental health. This term, he encountered an extreme situation where a casualty was found bleeding from multiple impacts. The team patched their subject up and assisted the ambulance service, giving their subject the best possible chance for recovery following a night out gone horribly wrong.

We take a taxi back to Eric Milner, and have to wait in the office for a while as the body cam footage ingests onto the geriatric computer and Molly, Sam, and Ned slowly unpack their gear. Records of students helped, and equipment used are kept throughout the night, and this must be recorded on a table, as police stats are, along with a form for severe incidents. This information can be referred back to later, as well as providing opportunities to prove the extent of the effort that NightSafe undergo during the four student nights each week.

Across 2019, NightSafe members dedicated over 2,000 hours to volunteering around York, balancing heavy academic commitments with occasionally stressful evenings out in town. Having been on my first sober night out, I’ve begun to understand why. Because of the respect they have earned, NightSafe volunteers hold a privileged position through their relationships with the various people that serve York’s booming club scene. It’s hard to imagine how situations we dealt with over the night would have played out in 2013, before NightSafe was founded.

Not only is the work rewarding, but the opportunity to gain training in self-defence, therapy, and first aid free of charge is also a big bonus. Alex admits the work can be “challenging,” but says his membership of the society has “been really good experience for me to develop as a team leader and think on my feet."

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