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The triple-zero system’s ills call for nothing less than urgent action

A service meant to help people in crisis is finding itself at the centre of its own crisis. This week, The Age revealed the tragic story of Preston father of three Nick Panagiotopoulos, who died in October after it took an agonising 25 minutes to get an ambulance to him. While the particular circumstances that caused triple-zero delays for Mr Panagiotopoulos are not known, it is known that the state’s emergency call system has suffered from chronic staff shortages leading to major connection delays as recently as in the past fortnight.

Credit:Paul Rovere

High demand has made the problem worse. Just over two months ago it was reported that demand on hospitals and calls to triple zero reached levels not seen since the 2016 thunderstorm asthma event. Marty Smyth, then chief executive of the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority, said 3250 Victorians made ambulance calls on a day in late September this year, compared with between 1600 to 2000 calls at the same time a year ago.

And in May, it was reported that Victoria’s triple-zero call system had been offline for hours at a time during a series of outages in the previous few months. Operators were forced to resort to pen and paper to log critical incidents. Several insiders revealed that the agency was understaffed and its dispatch system, which is used to log incidents and determine their seriousness, was hampered by defects.

The problems in calling triple zero have been exacerbated by similar staffing shortages within the ranks of paramedics. Capacity problems in Victoria’s emergency departments are also an issue. The scale of the extra resources needed was evident in this year’s state budget, where the government announced almost $500 million in spending over four years to increase Ambulance Victoria’s capacity, with 177 additional paramedics, new stations in regional areas and a telehealth pilot for some patients.

But Victorian Ambulance Union general secretary Danny Hill recently said that at one point this week there were just nine people answering calls to dispatch ambulances for all of Victoria, with staffing levels well below safe standards. The Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority insisted the number of triple-zero call-takers has not dropped below 21 over the past fortnight, although it did not clarify how many were dedicated to ambulance dispatch.

It was not surprising then that the Inspector-General for Emergency Management, Tony Pearce, announced this week that he was conducting a major review into the failings of the triple-zero system. Mr Pearce said his review would examine the delays in call answering and the “potential adverse events” that resulted.

It is painfully clear that the cracks in the system are showing. A senior paramedic of 20 years based in a regional area, who was not authorised to speak publicly, told The Age he had noticed significant problems at the triple-zero agency since the beginning of the year, while an insider at the authority said stress leave and WorkCover cases had debilitated its workforce. And after the tragic story of Mr Panagiotopoulos was revealed, dozens of Victorians contacted The Age to describe delays that had affected loved ones, including potentially leading to avoidable deaths.

Deputy Premier James Merlino said after Mr Panagiotopoulos’ story appeared in The Age that the government was acting. That might be true, but the triple-zero failings, technical and otherwise, have been a clear and present danger for months or longer. The government needs to demonstrate some urgency and commitment – and not just in response to media reports. Keeping its citizens safe, and responding to emergencies, is the first and foundational responsibility of a government, and in a wealthy state we are entitled to expect someone to answer when we cry out for help. That Victoria’s government cannot seem to fulfil this basic need in 2021 is nothing short of shameful.

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