The Guardian January 26, 2000


Ambulance drivers' action to save lives

by Peter Mac

NSW ambulance drivers last week took unusual industrial action when they 
disconnected vehicle data terminals, which are part of a recently installed 
$28 million computer-aided system for allocating vehicles to service 
calls.

The system has been undergoing extensive trials for some three months, over 
80 per cent of the State.

During this time it has become evident that the system cannot identify the 
location of individual vehicles, and so cannot allocate ambulance services 
appropriately.

The system takes a long time to download, and the associated new radio 
system has ineffective areas ("black spots") right across the State, 
including in Sydney.

Ambulance drivers who compared notes after using the new system concluded 
that there had been cases where vehicles had been allocated to calls that 
involved a journey of 50 minutes, while another vehicle had been five 
minutes away.

In one case a country driver is said to have driven 70 kilometres out of 
town to respond to a call. He was unassisted because the radio linked to 
the new system was out of range, and was forced to stop repeatedly to 
provide medication for the patient, who died shortly after reaching 
hospital.

The introduction of the new computer system has been accompanied by an 
alarming reduction in the number of drivers.

A representative of the Health and Research Employees' Association (HREA) 
told The Guardian that union members were not opposed to the 
introduction of the new technology, but were absolutely opposed to doing so 
at the expense of patient safety, especially given the low number of 
drivers available.

HREA Assistant Secretary Craig Thomson commented that: "There is no doubt 
that deaths are occurring because of lack of staff numbers compounded by 
problems with an inadequate mobile data system."

The problems with the new system have reached crisis point during the time 
of greatest incidence of traffic accidents.

Despite this, overtime for rural drivers has been cut, effectively reducing 
the number of drivers available by more than 100, and spurring the drivers 
to return to the old radio communication network.

Mr Thomson stated: "The Association cannot and will not obey 
recommendations and directives that potentially place the public at risk. 
We are not going to be responsible for the risk of people losing their 
lives."

Despite an Industrial Relations Commission directive to continue using the 
new system, ambulance drivers have refused to reconnect the computer 
terminals until defects in the system have been rectified, if it is 
possible.

Mr Thomson, however, is not optimistic about the chances of success. He 
described the system as "an absolute lemon", which should be abandoned.

Back to index page