‘Dictatorship’ claim at ambo inquiry
Sacked local ambulance chief says ‘toxic culture’ caused Toodyay volunteers to quit
By Michael Sinclair-Jones
SEVERAL Toodyay ambulance volunteers have resigned because of a “toxic culture” in St John Ambulance regional management and others are too afraid to speak out about it, a Perth parliamentary inquiry has been told.
Former local St John Ambulance chair Charlie Wroth (pictured left on Anzac Day 2019) claimed under oath that WA’s privately run ambulance service was intolerant of criticism and had failed “in basic areas” of emergency service delivery.
He described it as “more of a dictatorship”.
Mr Wroth, who is also a Shire of Toodyay Fire Control Officer and volunteer firefighter, said the State Government should take over the running of WA ambulance operations, as with fire and emergency services.
St John sacked Mr Wroth and expelled him from the organisation in 2019 after he “raised concerns about how volunteers are treated” at an emergency services forum organised by local WA Nationals MPs in Northam.
His 39-year volunteer membership was cancelled and he was ordered to leave the ambulance depot and return his uniform.
Mr Wroth had been awarded a St John Ambulance Cross for “outstanding service” by State Governor Kim Beazley at WA Government House seven months earlier.Read more
Local WA Nationals MP Shane Love told State Parliament that he was “shocked and dismayed” by the sacking.
He said Mr Wroth had been dealt a “gut-wrenching blow”.
“St John needs to understand that there is a view among many volunteers across a number of districts that they are not valued and respected by St John,” he said.
“They deserve respect, they deserve representation, they deserve better treatment than Mr Wroth has had.”
St John officials declined at the time to answer Herald questions about Mr Wroth’s sacking after ordering him not to discuss it with anyone due to “privacy concerns”.
They told local ambulance volunteers that Mr Wroth was ‘on holiday’.
CEO Michelle Fyfe told MPs last month that St John’s was “open and transparent” but she declined to answer their questions publicly about why Mr Wroth was sacked.
This was “in order to protect a number of people who came forward to us and who are concerned about a backlash”, she said.
A St John spokesperson in Perth said later that ambulance volunteers were expected to abide by a code of conduct and that serious breaches could result in termination.
The Herald reported in 2019 that Mr Wroth was sacked over claims that he made “inappropriate comments” at the Northam emergency services forum, “represented St John management in a negative manner” and made “disparaging remarks”, and “publicly undermined the community paramedic role”.
A complaint by Northam officials to Perth head office resulted in nine adverse findings.
Mr Love said later that he and two other WA Nationals MPs at the 13-member closed forum did not hear Mr Wroth say anything derogatory or offensive.
Parliamentary inquiry Deputy Chair Colin de Grussa (WA Nationals, Agricultural) said he attended the Northam forum and told the inquiry that the sacking was “very disappointing” because he thought at the time that it was a “very good meeting”.
When asked by Mr de Grussa if his treatment by St John had affected other ambulance volunteers, Mr Wroth said he knew of “probably half a dozen very qualified ambulance officers that have resigned as a direct result of what happened to me”.
“Experience like that takes years and years to build up and learn, and to lose it like that is devastating,” Mr Wroth said.
“There is a lot of hurt out there in the volunteers.
“I am no orphan, I assure you, because since I was sacked, a lot of other volunteers from other sub-centres contacted me and said the same, they have been treated the same.
“But if they are not sacked, they are held under that tighter rein.
“They cannot speak up to anybody so it is pretty frightening that they cannot speak up because if they do, they will get the same treatment I did.”
Mr Wroth told the inquiry that a St John ban on Toodyay ambulance officers acting as “first responders” to attend emergency calls meant that patients who could get immediate first aid from volunteers who might live nearby now had to wait up to half an hour for help to arrive from elsewhere.
Volunteers designated as first responders with oxygen, defibrillators and other equipment at home had to return their kits and could now act only as a member of the public in emergency situations.
“If you are talking about a heart attack, chest pain or serious bleeding of some sort, it is too late by then,” Mr Wroth said.
“But if somebody can get there within five minutes, they can save lives.
“St John doesn’t recognise that any more.
“Ever since I was sacked, I have been called to many homes and I will go and help somebody before the ambulance arrives because it is that first few minutes that is going to save somebody’s life if they are critical.
“These people have the expertise but they have taken that away.”
Mr Wroth said it was frustrating that local non-operational volunteers on 24-hour rosters were no longer allowed to take emergency calls and dispatch ambulance crews to jobs – St John now required calls to be taken by paid staff or ambulance crews, which Mr Wroth said was a waste of ambulance crews’ time.
Mr Wroth said medical training was previously provided by community paramedics but ambulance volunteers were now “expected to train themselves”.
“The quality of training that these unqualified volunteers provide is substandard,” Mr Wroth said.
“Volunteers are less qualified than someone off the street who has done a first-aid course.
“The least St John could do is give them adequate training.”
Mr Wroth said regionalisation of local ambulance services to Northam had alienated local ambulance services.
“Often with St John they make changes without rhyme or reason,” he said.
“You do not get an opportunity to find out exactly why something has happened.
“It is more of a dictatorship: ‘This will be done’.
“A lot of the problems we have had at sub-centres is not getting any response from the hierarchy, from the management.
“So it is very frustrating when you raise issues and you do not hear a thing, and after three or four emails still nothing.
“That is still occurring today, according to volunteers.
“I cannot speak for all regional offices but I know from people who used to work at the Wheatbelt regional office that there is a real toxic culture there.
“And they are just so relieved, people who have been there quite a while, to be finally out of there.
“And that is pretty sad – they were the management.
“They were glad to get out of such a toxic culture.
“They did not want to go to work.
“The reason I was sacked was because I spoke up to raise concerns about the way volunteers are treated, and the way that the operation runs with regard to volunteers.
“Criticism that can be sensible and constructive and lead to healthy improvement of services is not tolerated.
“I have fallen victim to this intolerance.”
In response to a question from local Labor MP Darren West, Mr Wroth said the culture at St John had not changed since he was sacked two years ago.
“If anything, it has probably got worse,” he said.
“For locals to have to deal with St John at a regional or state level is an extremely frustrating waste of time and money.
“The level of bureaucracy within St John is really beyond belief.
“The mantra of first-aid delivery is based on the acronym DRABC – Danger, Response, Airway, Breathing and Circulation – which most are familiar with.
“Within St John, the ‘B’ is said to stand for ‘billing’ because the organisation has a strong and possibly unhealthy focus on finances.
“This seems to compromise the focus on patients at times.
“In all, the culture in St John is probably a reflection of its board, with a couple of old ex-CEOs that just don’t want change or criticism and live in an old world.”
The inquiry is due to hear further evidence at the Toodyay ambulance depot at 1.30pm on Thursday November 4.
It is understood three senior St John staff from Perth are due to attend.
Mr Wroth suggested to the inquiry that they not be present when local ambulance volunteers give evidence “because, I assure you, people will not speak up about exactly what happened if there is staff or management present – yes, it will not happen.”
Inquiry Chair Pierre Yang (Labor, North Metropolitan) closed last month’s Perth hearing by thanking Mr Wroth “for your service to our community”.