Stretched to breaking point

GIPPSLAND has the most under-resourced ambulance service in Victoria, raising fears among paramedics the service will hit breaking point this Easter.

Ambulance Employees Australia state secretary Steve McGhie said emergency calls were expected to soar over the Easter period and “the truth is that the public are at risk”.

New statewide data just released by paramedics revealed “thousands of shifts” had gone unfilled over the past year due to chronic shortages of experienced paramedics.

With Ambulance Victoria employees free to speak to the media about their work conditions as part of a protected industrial action campaign, The Express has now heard numerous reports from paramedics of local patients waiting between two and nine hours for ambulances in the past month.

One case reported this week involved 76-year-old Maffra woman Jessie Swasbrick who fell and broke her hip but was left waiting, at a Traralgon specialist’s rooms, for two and half hours recently.

Her daughter Elaine Wellins said when an ambulance was initially called they were advised there would be a 40 minute wait and, though her mother was “shaking and in pain”, a vehicle did not arrive.

Local paramedics have claimed AV’s move to centralise its dispatch functions to a Ballarat-based contractor, ESTA, had been “disastrous” and communications were now often rife with confusion.

Mrs Wellins said when an operator phoned to check on her mother’s welfare, in the absence of an ambulance being available at the time, she asked “how the little girl was going, even though we had informed them (the patient) was an elderly woman”.

Out of frustration Mrs Wellins said she eventually phoned 000 and was “put on to a supervisor in Traralgon… he told me there was (a vehicle) back in the station but OH&S (occupational health and safety) requirements meant they needed to first have a meal break.”

Some time later Mrs Swasbrick was transferred to Latrobe Regional Hospital, where she remains, with a broken hip.

Mr McGhie called the scenario “another example of the ambulance service failing the community”.

“This woman has a hip fracture, she is in extreme pain and a distressed state and normal guidelines would be that the government benchmark is this person should have been responded to within 25 minutes… this will delay her recovery and it is evidence of a system in crisis,” he said.

Mr McGhie said the State Government “has to do something about retaining experienced paramedics” but claimed enterprise agreement negotiations between paramedics and the government had made “no progress whatsoever” with “no further offer made by the government”, though another meeting between the parties was planned for 8 April.

Mr McGhie agreed with a claim by long-serving Moe-based paramedic Tony Davis that Traralgon “desperately” needed a second ambulance as it still had “only one (operating) each day”.

“You definitely need additional resources in Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley, it is the most under-resourced area in the state,” Mr McGhie said.

Meanwhile the State Opposition has warned AV also planned to cut its driver education training program for new graduate paramedics as part of “a drastic cost cutting program”.

Opposition Parliamentary Secretary for Health Wade Noonan said a leaked document proposed to cut the five-day driver induction program from 2014, “forcing new graduate paramedics to complete an approved driving course prior to employment”.

“Driving an ambulance under lights and sirens with a gravely ill patient requires great skill and there is no way that a graduate paramedic will learn those skills if (AV) cuts their driver training program,” Mr Noonan said.

At the time of going to print, AV was unavailable for comment.