Ambulance crisis hits ‘critical’ levels

LATROBE Valley’s ambulance service was stripped bare last week with just a single vehicle in Sale available to cover an area from Sale to Berwick for hours one night, prompting paramedics to warn the shortage was “catastrophic”.

The Express has obtained information showing Ambulance Victoria’s failure to fill vacancies last Wednesday night, despite numerous urgent attempts, at Morwell and Moe branches meant both towns were without a single ambulance for between two and four hours, with just a “single responder unit” between Sale and Berwick who was, for part of that time, on his own with a “potentially lethal cardiac” patient in Traralgon.

Ambulance Employees Australia (Victoria) secretary Steve McGhie confirmed the nearest back-up for that one responder was dispatched from Maffra though eventually a MICA unit was able to free itself from Latrobe Regional Hospital to assist.

Meanwhile, a ‘code one’ case in Churchill – the description for a “time critical, lights and sirens” scenario – was “unable to be immediately resourced due to there being no available resources in the area,” Mr McGhie said.

‘Recall’ attempts by AV to fill vacancies were made across Warragul, Moe, Morwell, Traralgon and Sale but “were unsuccessful,” he said.

By 9.30pm that night the shortage remained “critical” and extended to areas as far afield as Cowes, Korumburra and Leongatha, according to Mr McGhie.

He said he understood Victoria Police also required an ambulance for the “psychiatric transfer of an inmate from Morwell police station to Maroondah Hospital” but, because there were none available, “many hours later” they were forced to transport the patient themselves to LRH.

Mr McGhie described the night as “dangerous and risky”, adding the case with Victoria Police raised issues of “safety for police and the person involved… it is not the best outcome for that person who needed to be in a facility (deemed) appropriate”.

While the extent of last week’s shortage may have been out of the ordinary, Mr McGhie said “it appears these sorts of issues are arising more frequently now and we are seeing quite some (geographic) distances with either one or no ambulance resources”.

“This goes to show how busy that corridor is because all of its resources were being used at the time… the root of the problem is there are not enough ambulances to meet the demand in the corridor between Berwick and Sale,” he said.

Moe paramedic Tony Davis recently proposed to AV that Moe run an afternoon shift to help meet rising demand but the offer was rejected.

Mr McGhie said had an afternoon shift been agreed to, and operating, last Wednesday the situation may have been avoided.

In response to State Government claims it had increased paramedic numbers across the state, Mr McGhie said “if that’s the case, how come we don’t have enough ambulances (in this region)?”.

“They said they have added about 300 (paramedics to AV) but they have simply filled gaps, not provided additional resources.

“There were 3000 occasions in 2012 when AV could not staff an ambulance at all, so they may say there are an extra 310 (paramedics) but we’re losing about 150 per annum and that 310 is over a four year term… it just does not allow for growth,” he said.

Ambulance Victoria’s regional manager Mick Stephenson said there was a “high demand” for ambulance services in Gippsland on Wednesday night.

“We attempted to recall off-duty paramedics to provide additional coverage and were able to staff an extra crew of Ambulance Community Officers to assist our rostered crews,” Mr Stephenson said.

He said there were an unprecedented level of ambulance services operating in Gippsland, and Ambulance Victoria was continuing to increase numbers as part of a $151 million State Government commitment.