AMBULANCE RESCUE SERVICES
Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE
Debate resumed from an earlier hour.
[2.44 p.m.]: I am pleased to support the motion moved by the Hon. Marie Ficarra. This is a very important issue. When one studies the history of the Government's toing and froing over the future of the ambulance rescue service it is clear that behind the scenes there has been an ongoing power struggle pulling the Minister for Health in one direction and then in another direction—with the ambulance rescue service pleading with the Minister to retain the rescue service and then NSW Fire Brigades pulling him in the other direction.
It is obvious that historically there has been a power struggle behind the scenes. On 21 August 2008 the Government announced that it would not axe ambulance rescue services in New South Wales. On 3 September 2008 the then Minister for Health, the Hon. Reba Meagher, announced that the ambulance rescue service was axed, and some officers were notified of their sacking via text message. On 2 December 2008 the then Minister for Health, the Hon. John Della Bosca, announced that the decision of his predecessor had been reversed pending a 12-month review. One would think that with such a black-and-white statement it could be relied on as truthful and that no further action would be taken for 12 months.
Yet on 17 February 2009, less than two months after the health Minister's announcement of the 12-month review, there was no review and the ambulance rescue service was axed. The handling of this matter has been disgraceful: it has not been handled in an honest, up-front and transparent way. Certainly, there has been a failure to consult Ambulance Service staff, particularly the ambulance rescue staff, and the community on the future of the service. I support the motion to condemn the Government for its continued neglect and failure to properly manage the Ambulance Service, particularly ambulance rescue, and for the disrespectful manner in which the Government announced the sacking of some officers via text message, particularly while some officers were volunteering their services in Victoria during the bushfires. Even now, at a minute to midnight so to speak, I call on the Government to review its decision and see if it can retain the expert services of the staff of the ambulance rescue service, which will enable both rescue staff and medical staff to deal with serious accidents. I call on the Government to reinstate the ambulance rescue service.
The Hon. MARIE FICARRA
[2.50 p.m.], in reply: On 3 September 2008 the Labor Government announced it was closing eight metropolitan ambulance rescue stations and handing their rescue role to NSW Fire Brigades. Regrettably, the paramedics found out about this decision the night before via a text message on their mobile phones, with those same officers required to relinquish their rescue role a mere 36 hours later. The Government announced that, of the 181 paramedic land rescue operators, 88 staff would relinquish their rescue roles and be redeployed to general ambulance duties. The Government justified this decision for five main reasons, which I will now review.
First, it said that the Ambulance Service of New South Wales was the only ambulance service to have a rescue function. My response is that ambulance rescue was one of the early pioneers of rescue in New South Wales. They are not the new kids on the block trying to wrest rescue services away from the fire brigade to establish a new direction within ambulance services. They are the veterans of rescue, with a strong experience base—45 years of continuous rescue service to the community, and not just local communities. They were a State resource that was called in to assist with major incidents such as the Thredbo landslide, as well as interstate, for example, with the recent Victorian bushfires.
Second, the Government argued that there was duplication and overlap of rescue resources as the fire brigade already had enough specialised equipment and personnel to provide the services previously provided by the ambulance units. It is true that NSW Fire Brigades currently does the majority of rescue work, with over 180 units compared to the ambulance rescue service's 14 units. Clearly, this is not the point. These units were never in competition with each other but rather complemented each other's expertise. The move was purely a political furphy and those involved know of the lobbying by the powerful Fire Brigade Employees Union to take over ambulance rescue services.
The Government administers NSW Fire Brigades under the banner of emergency services. It receives the majority of its public funding through a direct tax on the insurance industry known as the fire services levy. Only 14 per cent of its total operating budget comes directly from the Government's purse, thus transferring rescue operational expenses to the fireys is cost-effective for this cash-strapped Labor Government. That is the reason it is being done: it is purely for financial reasons.
The third reason the Government gave was that the Head review reported that the workload of rescue officers was only 11 per cent of their total workload. The focus of public safety is prevention. We all want fewer people requiring rescue services, but when a person needs the service we want them to receive the best care. The average rescue workload will be the same regardless of which agency is responsible for rescue services. Rescue paramedics do not respond exclusively to rescue jobs. If only 11 per cent of their workload is rescue work then the residual 89 per cent must be medical work. For the majority of the time they respond to medical calls for help, assess and treat patients and then request a transport vehicle if required. They essentially operate as rapid responders, working out of a rescue truck. They are most efficient and experienced. Clearly, this reason given by the Government was misleading.
The fourth reason given was that sending two ambulance crews, where the rescue truck was responding to incidents along with a general ambulance crew, was clearly a duplication of resources. The point is that rescue paramedics have a specialist role. If they are at a motor vehicle accident and another ambulance arrives on the scene, the role of the rescue officers and their paramedic colleagues is not identical; it is complementary. The responsibilities within the team are shared, and have been shared in the past, but the rescue officer's primary role is rescue and the paramedic's primary role on the scene is medical. They are clear about it and understand it and have operated efficiently with these guidelines for many years.
The third reason was that redeployment of ambulance rescue officers would boost front-line services, particularly through rapid response vehicles. These officers are currently employed as front-line officers and putting them in a different uniform and asking them to drive a different vehicle will not boost services. They will be absorbed into the general ambulance system, a system that is chronically short-staffed. There is no boost to rosters that are currently so short of staff that they struggle to cover staff on annual leave, maternity leave, long service leave and workers compensation.
The officers have been told that they can staff a rapid response vehicle—they can work out of the vehicle by themselves. The use of a single-officer response has inherent problems: paramedics will be personally at risk in attending to violent patients or dangerous scenes. Secondly, the patient receives care from only one person. Obviously, critically ill patients need prompt treatment and transport, not just a "rapid response". Treatment from one paramedic in a non-transport car when compared with that from two paramedics and an ambulance equipped for transport is not best service delivery.
The truth is that the Government is so keen to introduce and expand a rapid responder service because one of its key performance indicators is response times. The response service is measured by the amount of time it takes the service to take a call, dispatch a car and have the car arrive on the scene. So why is this Government so keen for NSW Fire Brigades to assume responsibility for rescue services? The short answer is funding, funding and funding. The long answer is that the decision to increase the fire brigades' rescue responsibilities is all about costs that will be borne by the private sector through the fire services levy. This levy accounts for 73.7 per cent of funding for NSW Fire Brigades. Local governments contribute 12.3 per cent and the State Government just 14 per cent. That's it, folks: it is all about dollars, dollars, dollars.
The Labor Government has run out of money so it will shift the responsibility to the insurance industry, which in turn will shift it onto consumers—New South Wales residents who find it difficult enough as it is to provide adequate insurance for themselves. In future their increased premiums will be required to fund rescue services. This whole measure involves shifting costs from the Government to New South Wales families.
It has been stated that firefighters performing rescue is best practice because that is what is done elsewhere in the world. I believe the cooperative approach we had until the Government decided it would bend to the union power of NSW Fire Brigades was world's best practice. The community does not want emergency care turned into a political football. It is not too late to restore the ambulance rescue service. I draw members' attention to the wording in part (3) of my motion: "That this House calls on the Government to reinstate the NSW Ambulance Rescue Service pending a proper independent review of the service". I call on members of this House to support the motion.
Question—That the motion be agreed to—put.
The House divided.
Reverend Dr Moyes
Question resolved in the negative.
|Miss Gardiner||Mr Della Bosca|