The call-taking service for ambulances in Victoria is operating with a skeleton staff, just months after a father of three died after waiting 25 minutes for an ambulance to arrive in Melbourne, the state’s paramedics union and a call-centre operator have warned.
As few as five staff members are rostered per shift in Victoria’s triple-zero ambulance call centre, leaving callers in the state of 6.6 million people waiting as long as 20 minutes to get through, according to Adam*, an Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) call-centre operator, who spoke to SBS News on condition of anonymity.
The revelations come three months after Nick Panagiotopoulos died after waiting for 25 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at his residence in Preston, a suburb located 10 kilometres north of Melbourne’s CBD.
Marty Smyth, the chief executive of ESTA - Victoria’s 24-hour emergency call-taking and dispatch services for police, fire and ambulance - resigned just days after Mr Panagiotopoulos’s death.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews described the incident as “unacceptable” on 9 December, vowing to fix the issue, and former police commissioner Graham Ashton was appointed to lead an independent investigation into the emergency call-taking service.
But little progress has been achieved since then, executive secretary of the Victorian Ambulance Union Danny Hill told SBS News.
“It’s not uncommon that we see less than 10 ambulance call takers for the entire state of Victoria, when you have thousands of calls coming through each day,” Mr Hill said.
“We’re hearing of some very, very unwell patients, waiting for up to 20 minutes to get through just to have a call answered,” he said.
Danny Hill, executive secretary of the Victorian Ambulance Union. Source: Supplied
ESTA has a target of answering 90 per cent of calls within five seconds but, according to Adam, 90 per cent of calls are not being answered within that time frame.
“We’re taking back-to-back calls, and calls are waiting for long amounts of time. We’re not talking two or three minutes, which is already a horrendous amount of time to wait. We’re talking calls waiting for 15 to 20 minutes,” Adam said, adding that only five to 15 operators are rostered per shift by ESTA.
“Five to 15 people is not enough call takers to service the state of Victoria effectively and safely,” he said.
The crack in ESTA’s staffing system became apparent in May 2021, when it started experiencing delays of about two minutes in answering emergency calls, Mr Hill said.
“We raised some concerns then but not enough was done at that time to increase staffing to deal with the workload,” he said.
“Ambulance Victoria, in preparation for the Omicron wave, recruited about 700 new paramedics in 2021, which is a record increase in staff, but we haven’t seen that sort of increase occur with ESTA,” he said.
ESTA is recruiting 43 new full-time equivalent call-taking, dispatch and mental-health support roles in 2021-22, following a funding boost in the Victorian Budget.
The new roles, a number of which are now operational, will help meet the growth in ambulance demand and improve police dispatch and radio-support needs. All of these roles will be fully delivered in the coming months.
According to Mr Hill, though, it’s too little, too late.
“They’re doing that now but a lot of those call takers will only come on in February. It takes some time for them to be trained and – unfortunately – we’ll miss the workload for the pandemic,” he said.
A paramedic moving equipment outside St. Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne. Source: AAP
Even before the pandemic, being an emergency call-centre operator was an extremely difficult job.
“Every single call is someone’s worst day. You’re dealing with high-intensity situations. You’re dealing with car accidents, dead people, people who’re very distressed,” Adam said.
But the recent delays in answering calls has taken job-related stress to unmanageable levels, he said.
According to Adam, emergency call-centre shifts at ESTA are 12 hours long and staff are meant to take a 30-minute break every 90 minutes.
“However, because of the call volume recently, we’ve been getting recalled from those breaks and breaks are being shortened,” he said.
ESTA staff are meant to work four days in a row – comprising two 12-hour day-time shifts and two 12-hour night-time shifts – followed by four days of no work, Adam said.
“But on each of those four days off, there will be multiple text messages and emails, asking people to come in and do overtime,” he said.
“I think the blame needs to be split between ESTA and the government. ESTA has been chronically understaffed for years and they have done nothing about it. And the government could have implemented better things, too.
“It’s not a new issue. People are just noticing it now because you’re waiting 20 minutes for someone to pick up the phone to get an ambulance,” he said.
A spokesperson for ESTA told SBS News: “Our triple-zero operators care deeply about the service they provide and the community they serve; any delays are unacceptable and we understand callers facing delays could be incredibly distressed.
“More than one-in-five calls to triple zero for an ambulance do not need an emergency ambulance response, and we ask the community to please save triple zero for emergencies and to use Nurse on Call where appropriate."
Jaclyn Symes, the Victorian Minister for Emergency Services, has also been contacted for comment.
*Name has been changed.