Long ambulance wait due to lack of volunteers

CONCERNED: Alison Edwards a rural GP working in Port Broughton is concerned on the lack of shifts covered and is encouraging people to become involved as a volunteer.
CONCERNED: Alison Edwards a rural GP working in Port Broughton is concerned on the lack of shifts covered and is encouraging people to become involved as a volunteer.

The sounds of an ambulance siren can mean a variety of things for different people, it can bring an eerie feeling to some knowing the cause could be for someone they know, for some it is a sound they hear too often and has no relevance, but for Port Broughton, it is a sound that is not heard enough. 

The high pitched, and loud screech over the past ten years is being heard less and less, as SA Ambulance fronts a crisis of not having enough volunteers to fill the required shifts.

It has declined to the point where it is unusual that Port Broughton has an ambulance in town. 

Yet this is not only a problem for Port Broughton; where currently only four shifts out of the required 14 shifts are being filled, but for the whole of South Australia.

Yet the question of blame lingers with no fingers currently being pointed. 

A rural general practitioner (GP) in Port Broughton Alison Edwards is concerned about the escalating problem, saying that patients can be waiting up to 40-45 minutes for an ambulance to reach them in an emergency. 

DELAYED: The time it takes for an ambulance to reach Port Broughton if travelling from Port Pirie.

DELAYED: The time it takes for an ambulance to reach Port Broughton if travelling from Port Pirie.

“Most of the time it does not make a huge difference, but if someone is having a heart attack, the longer they are left without getting medical care, they are damaging more of their heart. It can at times be potentially a matter of life or death.”

“It means that people are waiting longer to get an ambulance. If they ring an ambulance, they may have to come from out of town. For Port Broughton that might mean Port Pirie or Wallaroo and sometimes we get covered by Crystal Brook.”

The current situation in Port Broughton is applying external pressures to people like Alison, who are called to incidents either during her consultation hours at her practice or at night, but having a GP on call is not the answer, yet Alison to her expertise, does not know what it is either.

“I’m not sure what needs to change.”

“Without an ambulance in town, it means that my role as a rural emergency responder gets tasked often a little bit quicker than it might do otherwise.”

“I am already on call, it is an extra responsibility to cover. It means that if we know someone has collapsed out in the community, they might be waiting half an hour to get an ambulance to get in here, the pressures it adds are varied.”

“Often we know that something has happened but then we are having to wait, and wait, and wait for an ambulance to get here for a patient to get to the hospital.” 

The call is currently out to the communities of the Yorke and Mid North to volunteer their time to SA Ambulance, but as Alison explains, it is a rigorous process from start to finish, taking almost 18 months until one volunteer can start on a roster. 

“We are hoping to get some response to a recruitment campaign that we are running at the moment.”

“We have got some coming on board to do the Ambulance Assistance course which is a six month training to just be able to drive the ambulance to do basic support work and help out with a trained officer. To get fully trained staff it is going to take about 18 months for them to complete their training”, Alison said. 

Yet with not many hands being raised to take part in these courses, Alison says that country communities need to come to a realisation that there is a crisis and part of the solution is them, yet residents still remain hesitant. 

“I think country communities have been a little bit deskilled and everything gets a little bit more centralised.”

“There is not the local ownership of the ambulance service, so it is looked to the central system that they have got responsibility for making things happen.”

“Ultimately, it is up for country communities to recognise that our ambulance service is in a state of crisis and we need people to step up to help out.”

In the recent change of government, the liberals have said that $90 million will be slashed to the emergency services levy, which for many farmers and families living in communities is a great expense, Alison says that families are ambivalent to pay this fee because ultimately, it is them making up the services, not a paid crew. 

“It makes sense to have a volunteer model, but something needs to be done a little bit differently to get more people willing to volunteer.”

The idea of having paid crews in rural communities was raised to Phil Palmer,  the General Secretary Ambulance Employees Association in Adelaide, and he says that often communities with less than 3,000 residents will rely on volunteer systems but the model needs to be changed. 

“If you want an ambulance service, what the new government needs to do is change the model. We need to put a lot more paid paramedics out there, I think that is absolutely unarguable, but how we do that we are still talking about.”

“Do we need to put 24 paramedics in the Yorke Peninsula and 24 paramedics in the Riverland, that would be hundreds of millions of dollars of ambulance services, or do we strategically place them out in communities to help volunteers?

“It is a complex issue but it is not insurmountable.”

Yet for a place like Port Broughton, they have approximately 100 cases a year where ambulance staff are required and Alison Edwards has said for the majority of the time, they would be ‘twiddling their thumbs”.  

This on-going problem has been recognised by SA Ambulance and they say it is clear that people have less time to offer to rosters, even considering their volunteering numbers have grown in the past 18 months. 

David Place, the SA Ambulance Service Director of Operations for the country says that they are undertaking several programs to make volunteering more sustainable.

“Including a new recruitment campaign, streamlining induction processes and increasing focus on rewarding the valuable role employers of volunteers play in releasing them during working hours to respond to cases”, Mr Place said. 

In addition, they are also working tightly with SAAS Volunteer Health Advisory Councils to explore the model of delivery in the country, and looking forward towards so that a sustainable future can ensured. 

For now, Port Broughton and many places in the Yorke and Mid North are lacking in volunteers and they are in desperate need of people to put their hands up to volunteer. 

If you or someone you know is keen to become a volunteer for SA Ambulance in the Port Broughton area, please contact Linda Aitchison on 0429 380 812 or Sandra Ireland on 0439 649 809.