A ambulance is parked at the Alfred Hospital.
ESTA workers triage calls to triple-0 for ambulances, police and firefighters.(AAP: Diego Fedele)

The author of a report into Victoria’s triple-0 call service has disputed the Premier’s suggestion that a changed funding model would have made little difference in preventing delayed responses for 33 people who later died.

Key points:

  • Premier Daniel Andrews said the pandemic placed “unparalleled” pressure on the emergency call system
  • But Inspector-General for Emergency Management Tony Pearce said the pressure was accurately forecast by the agency
  • A former ESTA board member said the state would have been in a stronger position to weather the pandemic if structural funding issues had been addressed years ago

Inspector-General for Emergency Management Tony Pearce’s report into the emergency call-taking service ESTA found at least 33 people had died after experiencing delays since December 2020.

The report drew no conclusions about whether the delays contributed to the deaths, noting that was a matter for the coroner.

Premier Daniel Andrews has apologised to families impacted by delays in their triple-0 calls being answered.

But the Premier said “nothing” in a changed funding model for ESTA “would avoid the system being overwhelmed by the thousands of additional calls for help day after day” during the “unprecedented” pandemic.

“That’s just the facts,” Mr Andrews said.

“This is neither business as usual or a surge event, it is completely unparalleled.”

On Wednesday, Tony Pearce said ESTA was “actually very good at modelling and forecasting their call taking needs” as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“Look, I’m not going to get into whether the Premier is right or wrong, but … the evidence shows clearly that ESTA were able to predict what was likely to happen”, he told ABC Radio Melbourne.

“The problem they had was that their funding base was one that allows them to resource on a year-to-year basis for their business as usual.

“What it doesn’t do is provide them enough capacity to then ramp up when they get a large surge event.”

The Andrews government has committed $333 million to help the service hire 400 more workers, and has agreed to work towards a changed funding model to support strategic, longer-term planning.

Agency lacked ‘confidence’ to spend money 

Mr Pearce said it appeared ESTA was aware of the looming crisis, but lacked the same confidence as other emergency agencies to spend the money needed, and deal with the consequences later on.

“For example, Ambulance Victoria anticipated it was going to have some significant problems,” he said.

“It simply went out and made sure that the resources it had were as close as possible going to be the ones they needed to match the impact of what was coming.

“ESTA similarly knew what was coming because their modelling and forecasting was very good, they obviously have not had the confidence to simply go and spend the money … I honestly don’t know why that is.”

Mr Pearce said it was possible it was a cultural issue, with ESTA historically not considered as an emergency service in the same way as Ambulance Victoria or the fire brigades.

“Now people clearly understand that ESTA is an effective emergency service in its own right … without a call-taking dispatch agency, you can’t respond to the needs of the community,” he said.

“So it is a true emergency service … but it’s never really been considered that way.”

Former board member says he was pushed to resign

Roger Leeming, who served on the board of ESTA from 2006 to 2016, including several years as a director, said he constantly asked the government for more funding.

Mr Leeming said around 2015 he told the government that the agency was hitting the bottom of reserve funds, and without more money would be unable to deliver the standard of service the community “rightly demands”.

He said he told the then-emergency services minister, the late Jane Garrett, that leaving the agency to run on a tighter budget would have consequences.

“[I said], if this is all that the government wants to spend on ESTA just tell me and we’ll run the business with that amount of funding, but the service levels will go down … is that what you want?” Mr Leeming told the ABC.

“And the answer was always no.”

Mr Leeming said the government ultimately provided some short-term funding, but did not move to change the funding model as it is now.

He said he and several other long-standing members of the board were effectively dismissed by the government around that time. 

Mr Leeming added that there had been a disputed claim the board had recruited staff without authority, which he felt was not correct.

He said the departing board members were “a bit shocked to be out on the street” and felt the response from Ms Garrett, with whom he said the board had a respectful relationship, had seemed “out of character”.

“My feeling was that the words that she was expressing were not her own words,” he said, but said he could not say if she had been influenced by other senior government figures.

A Victorian government spokesperson said the minister at the time made a decision to review ESTA’s structure, “after which four board members resigned”.

The government also highlighted that in the few years before the pandemic, ESTA had been meeting or exceeding the call-taking target of answering 90 per cent of calls within five seconds.

Mr Leeming said if the funding issues he raised seven years ago had been addressed, the triple-0 agency would have entered the pandemic in a much stronger position.

“It’s unlikely that we would have coped with the full effect of the COVID boom, but we would have been … significantly better placed,” he said.

Opposition accuses government of pushing out independent voices

Shadow Emergency Services Minister Brad Battin said Mr Leeming’s account of his time on the board of ESTA was concerning, and accused the government of “cover up and spin”.

“If they had have acted in 2015 or 2016, when these reports came through, rather than forcing the resignation of the man standing up for Victorians, we would have had better outcomes during the COVID crisis,” he said.

Mr Battin accused the government of pushing out people who stood up to it and replacing them with “Labor mates”, an accusation which is currently being investigated by the Victorian Ombudsman.

“You can’t continue to push out people who stand up to the government in independent roles and expect positive outcomes,” Mr Battin said.

Source – https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-09-07/triple-0-emergency-ambulance-police-fire-call-delays-funding/101413262