Ambulances chalked with messages such as ‘We are not Triple Okay’ have been circulating Canberra’s streets for weeks now, but the protest over working conditions in the industry came to a head this week.
More than half of the ACT’s paramedics held a mass gathering at the Dickson Ambulance Station on Thursday 24 November, to call for the end of long night shifts and faulty communication.
Backed by the Transport Workers’ Union (TWC), the 150-strong group also moved a vote of no confidence in the ACT Emergency Services Commissioner Georgeina Whelan.
Paramedic Simon Gallagher said the current roster of two 10-hour days and two 14-hour nights per week was running workers into the ground.
“It’s fatiguing, it’s dangerous – not only for us but for anyone involved,” Mr Gallagher said.
“I don’t know how many people have half fallen asleep on the way home after a night shift – I’ve definitely fallen asleep at a set of lights, driving home thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ It’s time for it to finish.”
TWC ACT Sub-branch Secretary Klaus Pinkas said they have worked with the ACT Ambulance Service (ACTAS) for years on at least three issues, with the “unsustainable” roster being one of them.
“It might seem like this has just come up, but these issues have been brewing for a long time,” Mr Pinkas said.
“Long story short, the ambulance staff have lost confidence in the Commissioner. So we’ve decided to take it public, and it’s no small move for these people to go public.”
The first issue concerns a move by the Emergency Services Agency (ESA) and the ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate several years ago to merge the communication centres for ACTAS, ACT Fire & Rescue and State Emergency Services (SES) into one.
“The firies are on board with this too – that hasn’t worked,” Mr Pinkas said.
“Because of the different expertise needed in each field, it doesn’t work to combine them all in one call centre. We need it to go back to the old system, where the ambulance call centre was run by ambulance staff.”
The ESA has also shrunk ACT Ambulance’s dedicated crew of operations support workers from eight to two. Their duties include restocking supplies at the stations, updating equipment, and playing a practical role in major incidents when the paramedics need more people on the ground.
“Paramedics are screaming out for people who know this highly specialised industry,” Mr Pinkas said.
“Basically, we want ambulance people running the ambulance section, rather than a bureaucrat who doesn’t understand the industry.”
In response to the protest, the ESA is drafting a new roster system for implementation on 1 July, 2023. This will reduce the current two 14-hour night shifts to a single 10-hour night shift per week.
A spokesperson said this was designed to improve wellbeing and better the work-life balance of paramedics, while also addressing the “demands of a growing ACT community”.
A working group made of up paramedics and ESA staff, overseen by Mr Pinkas from TWU and a senior executive within the Justice and Community Safety Directorate, will oversee the process.
“During this time, the ESA will focus on continued recruitment to increase the paramedic workforce to the numbers required to ensure the roster can be sustained,” the ESA spokesperson said.
ACTAS and local paramedics have also been allocated $27.6 million in the 2022-23 ACT Budget to cover a larger intensive care paramedic program with more staff and more triple zero call centre positions.
Mr Pinkas noted the new roster had been fully accepted by ambulance staff.