Shortage forces firefighters and police to drive ambulances

INTER-AGENCY DRIVE: The Ambulance Employees Association says a lack of paid staff and volunteers has resulted in SA Police and Country Fire Service volunteers being called to drive ambulances across the region.

By Raquel Mustillo

FOLLOWING revelations Penola Country Fire Service (CFS) volunteers were recently called upon to drive an ambulance, the South Australian Ambulance Service (SAAS) says an inter-agency response to emergency situations was “not unusual”.

However, Ambulance Employees Association Limestone Coast councillor Andrew Shouksmith said the practice was “totally inappropriate”.

He said the use of CFS volunteers and SA Police (SAPOL) staff was increasingly common, with SAAS relying on the help of allied emergency service personnel “at least once or twice a week” amid increasing workloads and resourcing issues.

The latest incident occurred on September 5, when Penola and Nangwarry ambulance service volunteers were called to an incident in Penola at 7.35pm after a patient reported non-life-threatening stomach pain.

At 8.12pm, a notification was received that the estimated time of arrival of the next available ambulance was one hour.

Approximately 44 minutes later, the Penola CFS was paged with a note saying “assist SAAS – drive ambulance”.     

The request to the Penola CFS was withdrawn at 9.10pm, with a page reading “no longer required”.

A SAAS spokesperson said a single paramedic was on the scene within 10 minutes, with a volunteer later arriving to assist in transporting the patient to the Mount Gambier and District Hospital.

The spokesperson said an additional paramedic was allocated to Penola over the weekend to meet crewing requirements.

“Although it did not eventuate in this instance, it is not unusual for SAPOL, fire and SAAS to assist one another at jobs,” the spokesperson said.

“Our co-response model is particularly useful in the event of cardiac arrest where seconds count and hands are needed on chest quickly.

”However, Mr Shouksmith said it was crucial for all agencies to maintain operational resilience as demand continues to grow on emergency services.

“It’s almost inevitable that there is a single responder at Penola, so they will call on either the CFS or police to provide someone to drive them and that’s fairly standard practice these days,” he said.

“We would call for them once or twice a week to get someone out of a house.

“The SAAS volunteer, who is probably an assistant ambulance officer, will go in the back with the patient and we put the CFS volunteer in the driver’s seat of the ambulance.

“We’d never ask them to be involved with patient care, but we are quite happy to put them in the driver’s seat… we’re reliant on another agency because we don’t have enough resources.

“Regardless of whether its police or CFS we use, we’re diminishing someone else’s resource.”

Shadow Health Minister Chris Picton also raised concerns with the effect of inter-agency response in peak demand times particularly during the bushfire season.

“For this to happen in winter or early spring is one thing but for this to happen in summer is extremely concerning,” he said.

“We have CFS volunteers for a reason and it’s not to drive ambulances; it’s to put out fires.

“If we don’t have enough volunteers, the government needs to make sure there’s an adequate supply of staff so the people in that region are covered and volunteers for the CFS and other agencies are doing the roles they have been trained for.

“If you’ve got bushfires or other CFS incidents at the same time you’ve got health incidents, that creates a significant problem and it shows this is not a way of business that can be relied upon.”

Emergency Services Minister Vincent Tarzia, whose portfolio includes SAPOL and CFS, was contacted for comment, but said it was an operational issue and directed queries to the CFS.

SAAS said the Limestone Coast was well supported by five dedicated 24/7 paramedic and ambulance crews and 160 volunteers, and resourcing was kept under constant review.

The agency said a new recruitment campaign – aimed at building and retaining the ambulance services’ regional volunteer base – will be launched next month.

A CFS spokesperson said volunteer firefighters were trained as qualified ambulance drivers as part of the state’s Covid response.

“There’s quite a lot of our volunteers that are called dual responders, so they’ll be CFS volunteers and SES volunteers of SAAS volunteers as well.

“There was a joint program that was done… we did a call up for interested volunteers that wanted to do the driving of the ambulances as well and they were put in through SAAS training.

“It was a stop gap measure for if the crews became overloaded with work or if there was actual illness within the crews or they would need to stand down crews so it gave them extra capacity.

“It’s not uncommon for us to offer support for other emergency service agencies whether that’s SAPOL, ambulances or doing combined jobs with MFS.”

The CFS spokespersons said the inter-agency response did not affect the organisation’s ability to respond to fire emergencies.

“If we do have one crew that may be out for a patient lift or something like that, then our system recognises that truck is not available and pages the next available truck, whether it’s from the same brigade or a neighbouring brigade,” the spokesperson said.