Twelve Victorians die, including four children, after waiting for triple-zero to pick upMarch 6, 2022
Twelve people including four children have died after those trying to save them from critical injuries or illness made desperate calls to Victoria’s triple-zero service that were never answered or were picked up too late.
As more families publicly detail devastating call connection delays, and leaked official data suggests ongoing and systemic failings within the ambulance division of the state’s emergency response call authority, the Andrews government has responded by announcing what it called a “massive” $115.6 million reform package.
The daughters of Nick Panagiotopoulos, who died last year waiting for an ambulance call to be connected. They are aged 14, 11 and 9 in this picture.
The move to fund 120 new staff at the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority reflects the depth of the growing scandal, fuelled by new revelations in an investigation by The Age and 60 Minutes, about the failure to reform ESTA despite repeated warnings it was being overwhelmed.
The revelations include details of a dozen deaths since October last year, when those seeking help for the gravely ill waited up to 16 minutes to reach an operator, well beyond the agency’s five-second pick-up target. Among the deaths are toddlers and a baby.
When a two-year-old boy was found face-down in a public pool in November, it took almost six minutes for a triple-zero call to connect. The child was resuscitated at the scene by paramedics but died several days later in hospital, according to leaked summaries of the tragedies.
In another toddler drowning earlier that month, multiple calls were made to triple-zero over 10 minutes, but the calls never connected. The little girl’s family drove to a rural urgent care centre where staff made two further calls to triple-zero that were also delayed.
The family of 14-year-old Melbourne student Alisha Hussein has joined the call for government action after revealing how a delay of more than 15 minutes in picking up their triple-zero call likely contributed to the teen’s death after she suffered an asthma attack on October 27.
Renowned artist Andrew O’Brien is also demanding accountability after he had to wait at least five minutes, rather than five seconds, to speak to an ESTA operator after his wife had a near fatal COVID-linked seizure. An audio recording of Mr O’Brien’s triple-zero call captures him repeatedly pleading with a Telstra operator after he tells the distressed artist he can’t connect to an available ESTA ambulance dispatcher because of high demand.
“Please hurry, man. Please hurry. This is insane! Is there any other way? Should I take her to hospital? What’s going on, man?” Mr O’Brien says on the recording, obtained by this masthead.
The Telstra operator responded: “It’s really up to you, sir, if you want to take her.”
Artist Andrew O’Brien, who had to wait at least five minutes to speak to an ESTA operator after his wife had a near fatal COVID-linked seizure. Credit:60 Minutes
In an interview with The Age and 60 Minutes, Mr O’Brien said it took three hours to get his wife, Georgie, to hospital. She survived her seizure but was diagnosed with a brain tumour and is recuperating after surgery.
“This [the triple-zero delay] will happen to someone else. The responsibility lies with the executives, the CEOs and the state government whose charge and responsibility it is to provide that critical, acute care … and if they’re not doing it, they’ve abrogated their responsibility to us as citizens.”
The interim CEO of ESTA, Stephen Leane, who replaced former agency boss Marty Smyth after he suddenly quit the agency in October, confirmed systemic failings had been exposed by surges in demand linked to the pandemic. Mr Leane vowed to grieving families he would lobby the Andrews government for support, which he said had been promised.
“My advice to government is that we need to build ESTA into a place where this doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Several insiders involved in ambulance response have said the situation at the call centre was so dire that in some cases people may be better to drive their loved one directly to a nearby hospital as they waited to be connected, despite the inherent danger.
The Andrews government had promised it was acting following outcry over the October death of father-of-three Nick Panagiotopoulos, the first among the 12 deaths. Mr Panagiotopoulos’ family made repeated unsuccessful attempts to reach triple zero, and it took about 15 minutes rather than five seconds for one of the calls to eventually reach an ESTA operator.
The inability of ESTA to deal with surges in demand has been the subject of multiple warnings dating back to a 2014 Auditor General’s report, as well as later reports by the State Coroner and Inspector-General for Emergency Management following the 2016 thunderstorm asthma event that left 10 Victorians dead.
Mr Panagiotopoulos’ death prompted the Inspector-General for Emergency Management, Tony Pearce, to announce a major inquiry in December to supplement an existing and ongoing review into ESTA by former police chief Graham Ashton. Despite these inquiries, and additional funding announced last year for 43 new staff, the crisis has continued and more families are now grieving the loss of a loved one.
Nick Panagiotopoulos and his wife Belinda.
A summary of sentinel (adverse) events linked to ESTA call answering delays shows at least six deaths occurred in late December and January. Among them was a delay of almost four-and-a-half minutes after a baby boy went into cardiac arrest. He later died at hospital.
There were also delays of more than four minutes when a man, 51, went into cardiac arrest after choking at a food court and after a 21-year-old man had a cardiac arrest at a car wash and could not be resuscitated.
A 39-year-old suffering severe shortness of breath endured a six-minute delay on the line and his care was further delayed when it took 14 minutes for an ambulance to be dispatched. The man was in cardiac arrest when he arrived at hospital.
Earlier deaths included a 49-year-old man involved in a chainsaw accident in late November, where it took more than five-and-a-half minutes for a triple-zero call to reach an emergency dispatcher.
Interim chief executive of ESTA, Stephen Leane.Credit:60 Minutes
While it is impossible to know how many of the eight adults and four children would be alive today if not for the call delays, a senior health source, who was not authorised to speak publicly, said the fact that some patients were resuscitated after paramedics eventually arrived suggested they may have survived with earlier treatment.
The crisis has also hit the morale of ESTA’s existing workforce, who are dedicated and overworked frontline responders. They stress that they are answering as many calls as humanly possible and have for many months been demanding more resources.
Mr Leane, the organisation’s interim CEO conceded “we’ve had some real trouble trying to deliver on the expectations of the community and we went through some really difficult patches through late 2021”.
“We still haven’t worked our way through it … It will take ESTA 18 months to two years to get to where I think it needs to be,” he said. “We have to get on and make sure that no other families are affected.”
Underlining how far the performance standards have slipped at ESTA, 90 per cent of the ambulance triple-zero calls to the government authority are meant to be answered within just five seconds on average over a month, according to the organisation’s service benchmark. But between late September and mid-December there were more than 40,000 triple-zero ambulance calls delayed and waiting at least a minute to be connected.
ESTA performance data from February showed in a single day there were 174 urgent cases where the emergency response was delayed by more than one minute, and that the longest delay was more than 13 minutes.
Data from two weeks in January shows there were more than 11,500 calls that waited more than one minute to be answered during the period. This included 1562 calls that waited more than five minutes, 857 that waited more than six minutes and 414 that waited more than seven minutes.
In a single day in mid-January, more than 1000 calls were affected by notable delays.
Emergency Services Minister Jaclyn Symes described the $115.6 million funding package as a “massive boost to tackle unprecedented demand” that would not just fund 120 new positions at ESTA but a new training program.
“It’s plain to see just how much pressure Omicron has put on our health system and I know this has been a difficult time for Victorians who’ve faced distressing delays getting through to triple zero.”
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