By Michael Sinclair-Jones
SICK and injured people in regional WA cannot continue to rely on unpaid volunteers to provide ambulance services, a State parliamentary inquiry has found.
It said country communities had no guaranteed access to ambulance services and that patients living in 98.5 per cent of the state had no guaranteed response times.
“Continued reliance on volunteers to perform ambulance services is not sustainable,” the inquiry found.
Public health officials were urged to investigate using paid paramedics to extend regional ambulance services in a ‘hybrid model’ to support volunteers who currently respond to 90 per cent of all country calls.
A total of 74,000 calls last year were responded to by regional volunteers – a 22 per cent increase over the previous five years.
The inquiry also reported that more than 85 per cent of “frontline” paramedics did not trust senior St John Ambulance management.
Evidence suggested that “cultural issues” inside WA’s privately run ambulance service “extends to serious matters such as harassment and bullying,” the inquiry said.
“Current processes do not adequately address these matters.”
Despite three other recent inquiries, St John Ambulance had failed to resolve “issues” in its workplace and organisational culture.
The inquiry reported “numerous examples of employees in fear of reporting their issues to come forward and air their concerns because of possible ramifications”.
The findings echo claims by former veteran Toodyay St John Ambulance chair Charlie Wroth (above), who was sacked by Perth administrators and stripped of his 39-year volunteer membership after criticising management workplace culture at a private 2019 emergency services forum organised by WA National Party MPs in Northam.
Local WA National’s MP Shane Love later told State Parliament that he was “shocked” and “dismayed” by the sacking, which he described as “gut-wrenching”.
Mr Wroth testified under oath to the inquiry that St John Ambulance management culture was “toxic” and had failed in basic areas of emergency service delivery.
Several Toodyay ambulance volunteers had resigned, and others were too afraid to speak out, he told MPs in Perth.
The State should take over WA’s ambulance service and run it similarly to rural WA’s fire and emergency services, Mr Wroth said.
The inquiry said WA was one of only two Australian jurisdictions – the other is the Northern Territory – where ambulance services were not governed by State law.
It agreed there was a case for the State to take over ambulance services in WA but said “a private provider may deliver essential government services so long as it provides the services to a similar or higher standard as would a public entity”.
The inquiry said the State should investigate new laws to govern ambulance services or implement a “comprehensive policy”.
“Pivate providers of essential public services must be subject to the same oversight and scrutiny as a public body,” the inquiry said.
It noted that unlike with other essential services run by the State, the WA Corruption and Crime Commission had no jurisdiction over St John Ambulance WA operations.
A seven-year State agreement with WA’s monopoly ambulance service provider is due to expire at the end of this month.
The inquiry recommended that St John be offered a new contract for five years instead of the 10 years with two five-year options it had sought, with greater public scrutiny and accountability to the State.
This would include regular WA Health Department audits of St John Ambulance workplace and organisational culture to be tabled annually in the WA Parliament.
The inquiry said WA should consider switching to a different private operator or a government-run ambulance service if these higher standards could not be met.