Call it the paramedic’s dilemma. As any Code Red campaigner knows, there is plenty wrong with the system that employs and organises Victoria’s ambulance paramedics.
Indeed, there is so much wrong about the ambulance service and its treatment of staff that half of them cannot see themselves remaining in the job for another five years. Yet 31-year veteran Don Gillies says that the rewards of the job, the incalculable human returns are so profound that somehow you keep at it.
“You get so much out of it that it over-rides how bad the system is,” says Don.
“For me it’s not this amazing life-saving stuff: it’s the sense of just making a difference, helping someone out. A good example is a little old lady we took home from hospital. I am a gardener. It’s one of the ways I get away from work, and I noticed when we dropped her off her plants, orchids, were massively pot-bound. She said she’d been too ill to look after them. There was a nursery down the street so we bought some pots and re-potted her orchids for her. She was absolutely delighted. That’s one of my favourite jobs in 30 years.”
Don started working life as a cop but changed to the ambulance service after five years. While both roles involve serving the community, there is a basic difference in how they relate to the public, he says.
“As a policeman, when people are talking to you, you automatically assume that they are lying until you find otherwise. As an ambo, you are seeing people when they are at their most open. You are getting an absolute truth, and you are making a difference.”
Don, who is based at Mirboo North 150 kilometres east of Melbourne has been a prominent face of the Code Red campaign, addressing protestors from the bed of a truck in Melbourne (pictured above, centre), and at his home base. He is a committed unionist and, like all United Voice members, a key to sustaining our community by providing the support services it needs.
“There have been a number of times in my career if I had not had the union members’ support, because I am a reasonably forthright person, I could have had some significant issues,” says Don, who first came to prominence industrially back in 1991 when the Moorabbin station where he was based was decrepit and riddled with asbestos.
The station was badly designed, over-crowded and the leaking garage roof leached an asbestos-laced sludge when it rained. Once the sludge dried it became a lethal, wind-borne dust.
Don led a walkout, with the paramedics squatting with the local fire brigade. “I was happy to be the face of it,” he recalls. “I had enough support from the union membership.”
During his career Don has seen the service transformed from its ‘job for life’ beginnings to the heightened insecurity of the present. Junior paramedics are terrified of speaking out or being seen to be ‘out of line’ with the administration, he says.
Pay has not kept pace with the increasing skills and technical advances of staff either. Victoria’s paramedics know they could deliver themselves an immediate pay rise of thousands of dollars – but it would mean moving interstate since they are the lowest paid in the country.
And the job is a demanding one even before the shifts – a mix of 10 hour day shifts and 14 hour night shifts, or two days then two nights then four days off - are taken into account. Paramedics confront and deal with the consequences of the most horrific scenes witnessed on our highways and in our workplaces. They see sudden, inexplicable loss and waste, and the next day, they saddle up again.
“It’s not like we are on struggle street dollar-wise,” says Don, “but it’s not commensurate with the level of training and responsibility that’s around now.
“Back when I started there was little in the way of skills training and processes. It was the person you are that made the difference. Now we have this massive skills base, complex equipment, it’s a uni-degree, and I also did a graduate diploma in health and safety.
“We don’t earn what we should and when you consider inflation we have slipped back. The enterprise bargaining agreement for the last 10 or 12 years has just been a war trying to hang on to what we have got. I am not crying poor but the money is not good when you consider the responsibility and the price you pay with the shift work and the experiences of what you see.”
There is a key benefit to the job that many workers don’t have, and that is the defined benefit scheme that the ambos share with police and fire service staff. But it does not kick in until after 25 years’ service, and that’s too long for many.
The grind is so punishing right now that many young paramedics say they will not be around long enough to benefit from the scheme, says Don. That makes the Code Red campaign to lift pay and conditions to a level befitting paramedics’ expertise so much more urgent.