27 July 2023

Waiting years for a maternity uniform, and other reasons paramedics are fed up with ESA 'bureaucracy'

| James Coleman
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ACT paramedics drew messages on ambulances in 2022 as part of a protest for an improved rostering system and better working conditions. Photo: Transport Workers’ Union ACT Branch (TWU ACT).

Canberra’s pregnant paramedics having to make do with oversized shirts and trousers rather than a proper uniform is another sign of “systemic failure” within the ACT’s Emergency Services Agency (ESA), according to their union.

Georgeina Whelan quit her job as ESA commissioner on 21 July after a string of blows to her management of the organisation that looks after the ACT’s firefighting, ambulance and emergency response services.

An independent report released earlier this month described a “chaotic environment” with a “culture of blame and fear”, bullying and lack of trust among executives within the ESA.

READ ALSO ‘Don’t expect much justice’ in ACT: Police union lashes sentence for killer teen

Paramedics have passed two no-confidence motions in Ms Whelan over the past year, including as recently as six weeks ago at a meeting of the ACT Branch of the Transport Workers Union (TWU ACT).

The union is calling for the ESA to be dissolved and replaced by a new body – one out from under the government’s Justice and Community Safety (JACS) directorate and headed up by “someone who understands how to support and resource emergency services”.

It claims red tape is seriously hampering day-to-day operations.

“For example, uniforms overall have been a complete and utter disaster,” TWU ACT official Ben Sweaney says.

“There has been a systemic failure over the last three years to provide a fit-for-purpose maternity uniform. And we’re getting winter uniforms in January, while in the middle of winter, you’re lucky if you can get a summer uniform.

“The commissioner has failed to iron out those problems.”

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan Photo: Michelle Kroll Region Media

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

In addition to how Ms Whelan “often unnecessarily involved herself in operations”, there are allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” towards staff including yelling at them. One paramedic told Region he had never “been to a meeting that didn’t involve her yelling”.

“This was their leader and our members’ concerns went unaddressed, so how can they have confidence?” Mr Sweaney says.

Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman has said the government would “certainly not” consider divvying up the the ESA.

“The ESA was formed quite deliberately after the 2003 fires,” he said.

“We found from the McLeod Report that these agencies were not working well separately and an ESA was required to oversee and actually drive direction through the different sub-agencies of the ESA.”

READ ALSO ESA’s leader’s resignation seen as chance to ‘reset’ agency but concerns remain nothing will change

The report Mr Gentleman referred to came out in the aftermath of the January 2003 bushfire, and found ACT emergency services “performed creditably, but … were overwhelmed by the intensity of the fires and the unexpected speed of their advance”.

It proposed an ‘ACT Emergency Authority’ be formed to guide strategy and manage communication for future emergencies.

However, the union argues the McLeod Report is now 20 years old and negated by several reviews since then, including the Walker Review and Blueprint for Change Review, both of which point to management issues within the ESA.

2003 Canberra bushfires 2003

The 2003 bushfires led to the formation of the Emergency Services Agency (ESA). Photo: File.

“We think it’s time to start afresh,” Mr Sweaney says.

“We believe that the ESA creates another level of bureaucracy that’s unnecessary, unhelpful and hinders day-to-day operations.”

He cites an alternative in NSW, where a board of paramedics or firefighters outline issues with external stakeholders, who then provide advice. But whatever it looks like, he says it’s important work on a way to cut the red tape and provide “life-saving services” starts now.

“We call on the minister to commit to a new review so we can examine what’s changed since 2003.”

The union adds that it “welcomes the resignation and wishes Ms Whelan and her family well into the future”.

Assistant Commissioner Jason Jones will guide the ESA until a new full-time Commissioner is found.

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