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As well as being an Event Commander, Neil is currently the title holder of the Brora Masters Fud Cup.

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Neil McDonald, Event Commander!

I’d decided in my head before this website had even launched that Mr Neil McDonald will be featured on the big personality blog. My online magazine here is a bit like a fantasy football league or dream dinner party; my choice of people, for my own odd reasons.   Most of these reasons are built around a desire to paint a picture that shows Perth in all of its quirky, brave, awesome, bold and slightly-crazy glory.  Neil here, is bringing in the awesome!   

Neil McDonald, Nelly, Nelbert, Fat Boab…  I am going to struggle to give him his proper name because since I was 16 years old this man has been my friend. I love him dearly.  For the purposes of this blog I want to chat to him about his role at everyone’s favourite Big Perth Event, T In the Park.  He’s having none of it.  I get his wife, Lynne, on side. Still no.  Hates the spotlight.. blah blah blah. So I go to his house with my note pad and refuse to leave.  I remind him of the time I heard him serenade a French campsite from a shower block, and that if he casts his mind back 25 years he will remember he loves a wee turn in the spotlight. He makes me a cup of tea and shaking his head, silently gives in.

Neil is a manager for the Special Operations Response Team for the East of Scotland – that’s the paramedic response team for those of you, like me, who draw a blank at anything that sounds remotely military.  He’s been in this role for 4 years now and if I’m honest, none of us are entirely sure why a man in a green jumpsuit (and Tom Cruise ray-bans circa the Top Gun years) drives to Edinburgh every day to sit behind a desk.  We know about T In the Park, we’re vaguely aware of the Ryder Cup coming up.

Nelly at 16When he was 16, Neil left school and worked as a removal man – get him drunk enough and he’ll explain how to move a Piano down a flight of stairs properly. He flitted about from job to job, a bit aimless, but with this dark little secret that he might like to become a paramedic some day.  He finally plucked up the courage to apply to patient transport but he was rejected due to lack of suitable qualifications.  SLAP! This happened again the second time round, at which point, his then girlfriend – now wife – talked him into doing a 14 week British Red Cross First Aid course with her. This, people, was the deal changer.

His course finished on a Thursday; on the Friday, Patient Transport advertised for a new intake and he applied. Third time lucky – our man was in!  He was 26 years old, he had his foot in the door for a career as a paramedic and after two years driving patients around between day hospitals and other non-emergency situations, he qualified as an ambulance technician.

I need to fast track a bit through the early years because I’m whizzing my way to T In The Park and current day.  He qualified as a paramedic in 2001, and as anyone who has had to work bloody hard to make their dream job happen will tell you, he loved every minute of it. He became a team leader at Perth and by 2008 he was sitting in a management job looking at government led standards.  So far, so everyday life. We call that career progression.

Blue Skies at T

BUT… all the while he’s working his way up through the ranks of paramedics he is also doing a stint once a year at T In the Park.  From his first year in patient transport when he volunteered to help he has been part of the team that keep us safe while we’re swaying along drunkenly to Blondie and planking across the gate of the VIP zone.  As his career progressed so too did his role at our favourite annual event until in 2006 he was appointed as an Event Commander.

Now, it might just be me but that is quite possibly the best job title I have ever heard. Everytime I say it I want to put on the voice usually reserved for American Superhero Movie Trailers.  Neil McDonald is… the Event Commander.  Would he get a cape? Or wear his pants over his green jumpsuit?

Apparently not.  Instead he was given the mammoth responsibility of all ambulances on site, 56 staff and 17 managers.  He took a break from it in 2012 and then last year he went back in as the Medical Co-ordinator, a role that he’ll be carrying out again this weekend.

I want to know what a medical co-ordinator does and as he begins to explain that he is in charge of planning and co-ordinating all medical staff and services, I’m feeling a little bit awestruck by my old friend.  That’s 8 GPS, 22 nurses, 5 A&E registrars, paramedics, ambulances, first aid and voluntary aid services all coming in under the watchful eye of oor Nelbert.  At this point I think I should text everyone and tell them to stop making jokes about his transition from removal man to paramedic … “At least the wardrobes never complained when you dropped them” type jokes. You can imagine. 

How does it feel, to have all that responsibility? 

“Its my job. I’ve been doing it a long time. Its second nature I suppose.  You don’t really think ‘85,000 people are under my care’.  You’d go mental if you did that! You need to treat each event as a new page and never become complacent.  We’ll deliver this event this weekend, then we’ll debrief with PKC and DF concerts in August, we’ll mull everything over and we’ll start planning for next year’s event in November. It never goes to sleep.”

Lynne and NellyHe does sing the praises of DF Concerts and the ambulance planning team and tells me they have won the safest event in Europe for 7 or 8 years in a row now. It is the Gold Standard among events for safety and medical provision.   I push him into admitting he’s one of the reasons for this but he’s squirming like a baby eel.  He explains (like I’m six!) that there is no way you could pull off an event like T In the Park without an entire team of people, each playing their part well and taking care and pride in what they do. It’s not the motivational-business-speaker-version of a team at work – it’s the people-will-die-if-you-get-it-wrong version.  He insists that a year-long plan will become worthless without the right people at execution stage. The Gold Standard is the collective efforts of every man and woman in a green jumpsuit and yellow vest. 

But there must be some funny stories…. (I know that’s what you’re hoping I would ask him!)

“We’ll see about 3000 people over the weekend which out of 85,000 isn’t bad. About 30 of those will need to be moved off site to hospital and that’s only because we don’t have an X-Ray facility on site.”

Not what I asked… I want to know about the terrible, yet hilarious tales of drunk people falling over at a concert.

“You know fine I can’t tell you that… Ok, I’ll let you in on a wee one. It was a Friday afternoon about half an hour into the event and this girl comes up to us and asks for the morning after pill. THIRTY minutes in. That’s impressive by anyone’s standards – the GP gave her a prescription and sent her to the chemist in Kinross.”

“We usually have a superhero run on fancy dress Friday – we treated batman, superman, wonder woman and Bananaman in the space of three hours one year. And apart from that we’re all about trips, slips, too much booze and sunburn.”

He’s adamant they have been spared the worst of it because of DF concert’s stringent anti-drugs policy.  He thinks every year will be his last, that he’s done his time.  But then the same people sign up to help gain, just as he has, and he knows he would struggle to hand over the reins.   He loves this event.

Plus, it must have led to other things as he’s off to the Commonwealth Games.

“Well, yes and no.  I’m in as a tactical advisor for the Games. I’m an Event Commander for the Ryder Cup though.”

Muddy NellyNeil McDonald, Event commander, then goes on to explain to me what he does in a green jump suit at a desk.   The Special Operations Response Team Manager role came after T In the Park but it was his love of the event that led him down the risk and resilience path. His team manage the risk aspect of the paramedic service and work with other agencies (like police, fire brigade and coast guard) to become the operational arm of major events – Pope’s Visit, Royal Visit, Ryder Cup - and potential major incidents.  

Major incidents such as chemical, biological and nuclear “Hot Zones” you understand.  In 2012, for the first time, paramedics were trained in ballistics and Hot Zone Working. His role means he works day to day at a desk but he’s hands on in the field in a command capacity.  So instead of a fireman dragging you out of a hazardous situation, Neil’s team would go in. 

“Taking care to the people, when they need us, whenever they need us. I’m on call tonight.”

I push him for his best bits. There has been the delivery of a baby. But that’s it. If we need to see him then the news is not good. I had never thought of this before.   

I ask him if he’d do it all again, if he could go back and choose his path.

Neil McDonald“You know Nic, I always wanted this. At one point I never thought I’d be able to do it. I thought that was me. Lynnie dragged me on that course and made it happen for me. I got my job, I married the girl I loved and I am now running things I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. I wouldn’t change one damn thing.”

I need to lighten the mood or I might blub.  Do you think we’ll see you on the telly at the Ryder Cup?

“Feck! You better hope not! If you see me then something big’s gone bloody wrong!”

So there he is. Perth man. Event Commander. Holder of The Brora Masters Fud Cup. Special Operations Manager.  Ballistics Trained. My Pal Nelly.