New ambo recruits amid surge in triple zero calls

A team of new emergency call takers and dispatchers is being rolled out by SA Ambulance Service, following a surge of nearly 200 extra triple zero calls a day this winter.

Aug 22, 2022, updated Aug 22, 2022
New SA Ambulance Service dispatcher Kristy McCormick. Photo: Jemma Chapman/InDaily

New SA Ambulance Service dispatcher Kristy McCormick. Photo: Jemma Chapman/InDaily

Health Minister Chris Picton said the 28 new staff – 18 call takers and 10 dispatchers – would help respond to a growing number of emergency calls to the ambulance service.

He said SAAS had been inundated with a 14 per cent increase in triple zero calls over winter – equating to nearly an extra 200 calls a day – which was putting extreme pressure on existing workers assessing a patient’s need over the phone and determining the best response.

“We’ve had a significant increase in the number of triple zero calls that we’ve faced this year particularly over the busy winter months, some days spiking over 1000 triple zero calls to the call centre,” Picton told reporters today.

“We need these staff here to help provide that assistance to make sure we can answer those calls in a timely way.”

Picton urged the public to call triple zero “when it truly is an emergency”.

“If it’s not an emergency then there’s a number of other ways in which you can get assistance including by calling Healthdirect,” he said.

SA Ambulance Service statewide operations executive director Kate Clarke said the 14 per cent jump in emergency calls was “a particularly substantial increase in demand” compared to previous winters.

“That almost 200 extra cases on triple zero per day has been quite significant for our call takers which is why the additional dispatchers and also additional call takers… are a very welcome bolster to our staffing,” she said.

Clarke echoed the minister’s message for people to call triple zero only in an emergency.

She said up to a quarter of triple zero calls were currently being diverted away from hospitals to “alternative care options”, including GPs, virtual care services, priority care centres and home-hospital programs.

It comes as the doctors’ union this morning tweeted there were 119 people admitted and waiting for a hospital bed in emergency departments across Adelaide.

“This significantly reduces ED capacity to assess and manage new patients,” the union said.

There are 119 people admitted & waiting for a hospital bed housed in our adult EDs. This significantly reduces ED capacity to assess & manage new patients!@PictonChris @ANMFSA @SA_Ambulance @acemonline @amasamembers @sasmoa4doctors

— Adelaide Emergency Departments (@AdlEmergStatus) August 21, 2022

Picton conceded the new ambulance recruits were only a small part of the bigger picture needed to address bed-block and reduce ramping.

“Clearly when you’ve got people who are stuck waiting for beds in emergency departments then that means that the next ambulance that comes, there’s blockages for those people getting through the system,” he said.

“It’s a whole range of things that we need to do right across the system – there’s not one silver bullet that we need in terms of fixing the issues in our healthcare system.”

Picton said the Government was “pulling out every stop possible” to improve patient flow.

“One of the issues that we’re facing is those blockages in terms of getting people out of hospital beds and that’s why we’ve been doing so much work in terms of NDIS and aged care discharging,” he said.

“We’ve established a new Regency Green centre which has been opened for the past couple of weeks and progressively more of those really complex NDIS clients have been moving from our hospital system into there; we’ve opened more beds across the system; we’ve opened public beds in private hospitals across the system as well.”

“Non-urgent” elective surgeries have also been postponed across hospitals and Picton said he was “getting some further advice as the week unfolds” about whether they could resume again from Friday.

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The human impact of full hospitals and ambulance ramping was highlighted recently by the death of an Adelaide father from a suspected heart attack after waiting 42 minutes for an ambulance.

An investigation into his death is being carried out by SA Health chief medical officer Dr Michael Cusack.

“This is an absolutely tragic case and we need to properly investigate this matter, learn the lessons from it and make sure that we embed the learnings of that into our system,” Picton said.

“I understand there has been contact with the family and there will be more of that in coming days and we will certainly have an update as soon as we have a final report.”

Picton said the Government had already committed to releasing the report publicly which he hoped would be ready “in the next couple of weeks”.

A taskforce is also considering whether fire fighters could help relieve pressure on the state’s stretched ambulance service.

“I understand that will be meeting either later this week or early next week to look at how we could potentially use the fire service in a safe way particularly when there are some days of very high demand across the system,” Picton said.

He said the latest ambulance staff recruits were part of Labor’s $124 million election commitment to employ 278 paramedics and 72 ambulance officers over the next four years, with 99 to start by mid next year.

Picton said the new emergency call takers would provide instructions on how best to manage a patient during periods of high stress, as well as organise non-urgent bookings for ambulance attendance.

Emergency dispatchers are former call takers who undergo further training to help triage calls and dispatch an ambulance if required, “in the time frame and priority recommended by their assessment”.

The call takers come from a variety of backgrounds, including customer service, retail, health and patient assistance.

One of the new dispatchers, Kristy McCormick, today told reporters she was “so excited” about her new role.

“I’ve been trained for about six months now doing relief but it’s awesome to have a full-time ongoing position,” she said.

McCormick said call takers send jobs to the dispatchers like herself “and it’s our role to figure out what kind of resource we have available, where we should be sending it from, what’s going to suit the patient’s needs the most and who can get their quickest”.

Picton said a further five emergency dispatchers would be hired by the end of July 2024, to meet an election commitment of hiring a total of 15 extra dispatchers.

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