Inside the ambulance crisis

The State Government last week walked away from solving the ambulance crisis. Ambulance Employees Australia secretary Steve McGhie says paramedics have been grossly misrepresented by the government.

During one 14-hour overnight shift recently, northern suburbs paramedic Amanda Mills (pictured below) and her partner responded to five life threatening emergencies,  drove who knows how many hundred kilometres from each call out to the Northern, Royal Children’s, Royal Melbourne and Western Hospitals, all with barely time for a meal break.

This followed a 14 hour Monday shift the night before in which they took seven patients to hospital, many of whom were seriously ill and needing active management on the way. But Tuesday was the ‘nightmare shift”.

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With just 10 hours between shifts, their first call out on Tuesday came three minutes after starting work at 4.50pm. It ended at 7.30am Wednesday, after they waited half an hour at the overrun Western Hospital to hand over their final patient, who was suffering chest pains and shortness of breath.

They did finally get a break: more than ten hours after they began. But there were also several ‘false starts’ where they set out with a patient for one hospital only to be diverted to another because no beds were free.

 It is highly demanding work administering CPR, coping with distraught families and driving under pressure, and you finish exhausted and wrung out. It can take days to recover from shifts like that. Amanda says at least one shift like that happens every week where she works.

Who cares? We know Victorians care because they have been wonderfully supportive of paramedics in our campaign for a long overdue pay rise. But it seems the government does not.

As Amanda said: “The job is barely workable physically and mentally right now. To look at taking away conditions that make it fair is unbelievable.”

The government’s lack of respect for paramedics is clear when the Health Minister, David Davis misleads the public about their pay and conditions in his expensive newspaper advertisements.

Instead of the $100,000 a year that Mr Davis says paramedics earn, someone like Amanda Mills with a university degree and six years on-road experience receives base pay of $56,000, and adjusted pay of $71,000 after allowances for shift work.

Mr Davis also claims he is offering paramedics a 12 per cent pay rise over three years. That’s not right either. The last pay rise was in August 2011, and Mr Davis wants this offer to run until 2017. That is a two per cent annual pay rise over six years.

And he does not tell the public that interstate paramedics earn up to 30 per cent more than in Victoria.

But I think the real doozy is the government trying to influence public opinion during the ambulance crisis by talking about paramedics working ‘only’ 148 days a year.

Paramedics work four days on and four days off. The first two are 10-hour day shifts, and they are followed by two more 14-hour night shifts, and Amanda’s story tells us how hard that work is. So in those four days they work 48 hours, ten hours longer than the normal working week.

Over a full year that translates to 1776 hours. Someone working a normal 38 hour week with annual leave and public holidays works 1740 hours, almost a full working week less than paramedics.

Yet Mr Davis tries to suggest paramedics work less than everybody else.  It is that kind of tricky argument that has cost him the trust and confidence of paramedics.

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The biggest stumbling block to solving the paramedics’ pay dispute is the government’s insistence on changing working conditions. And there is no bigger problem than trying to force paramedics in country Victoria to relocate from home for up to a month at a time, to anywhere in the state that Ambulance Victoria wants to send them.

Paramedic families already make huge sacrifices. It is very difficult for spouses to work because of the constantly rotating shifts, so many get by on one income once children are on the scene.

But under the latest pay offer Mr Davis wants the power to disrupt families and lives by sending rural paramedics away from home on short notice. This is despite our offer to help set up a voluntary system to cope with demand for country services.

If he scrapped that condition, and several others that affect paramedics’ working lives, then Mr Davis could solve this dispute that has dragged on for two years. Already we know that about half of Victoria’s paramedics expect to leave the job within five years, but insist on this condition and there will be an exodus of experienced paramedics.

Unfortunately many paramedics believe the government does not care about retaining them.

As Amanda said: “There are so many paramedic students coming through, the government seems to think we are replaceable. That offer says to us that they don’t care.”

Mr Davis is apparently unwilling to keep trying, but paramedics will not accept the strings attached to his offer. Remove them, and we can fix the crisis.


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