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How do you know if you have to call an ambulance to a drunk person?

“When you came to our school you told us how to look after a drunk friend by putting them onto a chair and this would help us know if we had to call an ambulance or not. I have tried to explain this to friends who don’t go to my school and they don’t understand me. Could you tell them what you told us as I think this is really important?”

One of the most frightening experiences a young person will ever have is going out with their friends to have a great night out and everything goes ‘pear-shaped’ when one of them gets really drunk and no-one knows what to do…

If someone you know gets really drunk and you become worried about their well-being the best thing to do is to seek help from a responsible, sober adult. For many young people that is just not an option they will even consider (at least not in the first place). Sometimes that’s due to them worried that they may get into trouble or they may simply believe they can look after the situation themselves. At the same time, they may have people around them telling them not to worry and that “everything will be fine”. So how do you know if things are not okay and is there a simple way to work out whether someone needs an ambulance or not?

This is a simple little strategy that I present to students and all you need is a chair. This needs to be a straight-backed chair with no arms. Make sure it doesn’t recline back and it’s better if it isn’t a particularly comfortable chair (e.g., has comfy cushions). A good sturdy plastic garden furniture chair is perfect. Once you have that, follow these simple steps:

  • Get your drunk friend to sit in the chair. Make sure they sit as far back as possible, with their backside against the back of the chair and say – “I want you to sit up for me”. You want to see that they are able to hold their head up by themselves. If you are worried about them, there is a very good chance that they won’t be able to hold their head up very well. It’ll drop to the side, the front or the back, but you want to see that they can hold it up by themselves. It may not stay upright all the time, but keep talking to them and make sure they are still able to sit up and show you that they are able to hold their chin up.
  • If they cannot hold their head up by themselves, they may be in trouble. With their head slumped, they now have a restricted airway (it’s not blocked, but if they vomit, even the smallest amount, they could choke).
  • If they are unable to hold their head up by themselves you must immediately put them onto the floor into the recovery position (a hard, even surface – not a bed or couch). This will keep them safer while you assess what to do next.
  • If they can hold their head up, get another chair and sit in front of them. This way you are able to monitor them effectively. Look right into their face and look for one, simple warning sign – their chin dropping down to their chest. A drunk person’s chin dropping to the chest means they are either sleepy or unconscious – you can look after a sleepy drunk, you can’t look after an unconscious drunk. To work out which of these your friend is you will need to get their attention. Clap, click, yell or shake the person – if they are asleep, they will ‘wake-up’ or at least show some form of consciousness. If there is nothing that person could very well be unconscious, no matter what anyone tells you.
  • If they are unconscious put them into the recovery person ASAP and call an ambulance – drunk + unconscious = ambulance – it’s as simple as that!

I developed the ‘chair test’ because I was involved with a number of alcohol-related deaths where young people were looking after their friends and they died right next to them. This was usually due to them being laid down on a bed. It is extremely difficult for anyone (let alone a drunk teenager) to effectively monitor a drunk person who is lying down. The chair provides a simple way to monitor their friend, to make sure they are still conscious and alert them to when they have no other choice but to call an ambulance.

First published: July 2016
Updated: March 2018

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