Wed. Oct 27th, 2021

An emergency caller for Victoria’s ambulance services says it’s not uncommon for her to receive text messages requesting that more staff work overtime before she even keeps the clock.

As COVID-19 cases grow across the state, the pressure is mounting on the triple-0 service and its staff, who are increasingly being asked to take on overtime and extra shifts.

Anna, who asked for her real name to be withheld, said callers were well aware when they reported for the job that emergencies would require them to “pretty much drop everything and get in”.

“They can not keep sending out [messages] so they are just [saying] ‘hi, if you can do overtime, we appreciate it, but we also understand that you are struggling, so take care of yourself first’. “

A Victorian ambulance
Victoria’s Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority is recruiting more staff to handle triple-0 calls.(ABC News: Seraphine Charpentier Andre)

Long days get longer

According to Anna, even without the extra pressure of overtime, the everyday life of ambulance callers with the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) has changed dramatically during the pandemic.

They work 12-hour shifts that begin at either 6 p.m. 6:30 or 6:30 p.m.

Anna said that pre-pandemic every caller on a day shift would have two minutes between calls.

“[Now] as soon as you get a call, you are on another one right away, ”she said.

“We’re supposed to take a break every hour and a half because it’s just so mentally stressful.

“But at the moment we are not really getting those breaks because there are so many calls waiting.

“We’ve in the job because we want to help people, and you can see these calls are piling up.

Nurses carry medical bags on foot.
Call recorders receive multiple calls to ambulance services as COVID-19 cases are spread across the state.(ABC News: Seraphine Charpentier Andre)

Staffing levels in focus

Earlier this month, the Victorian government announced that former police chief Graham Ashton would lead a review of ESTA, among revelations that two people died after triple-0 calls were missed for more than five minutes.

ESTA CEO Marty Smyth said the organization is launching its “largest recruiting drive ever to help dial up” to meet demand.

The authority is recruiting 43 new full-time equivalent staff in call, dispatch and mental health support roles with funds it received in this year’s state budget.

An open office space with people working on computers at ESTA in Ballarat
Emergency vehicles are dispatched from the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority center.(ABC Ballarat: Sarah Jane Bell )

“We have also added additional training courses to allow a greater number of trainees to progress across all of our centers,” Mr Smyth said.

He said the number of call recorders depended on the daily forecast in call numbers, but “almost unprecedented call levels in recent weeks” had caused great strain on the service.

Anna said 10 to 24 call recorders were sent to ambulance services at any one time, having previously had at least 16 call recorders overnight and more than 20 during the day.

Call only for emergencies

Becoming a triple-0 call-taker requires months of training after some personality assessments and aptitude tests.

Smyth said ESTA had “existing strategies in place” for overtime and would “continue to work with the government on other potential measures that can support increased capacity within our workforce”.

He said ESTA had re-employed former callers and senders and recalled operational staff on postings.

Anna said she worried people in real need, including the elderly, would be the ones discouraged from calling triple-0.

But she urged those seeking emergency assistance to listen calmly to the callers.

“What they don’t see is everything we do behind the scenes to help them,” Anna said.

“We ask specific questions because that’s what determines an emergency.”

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