Triple-zero crisis:Government failed to address ESTA funding problems

The man charged with reviewing Victoria’s triple-zero agency says the state government has failed to address critical funding issues in its response to a damning report that blamed the shortfall for poor performance,causing delays linked to 33 deaths.

Three sources have toldThe Age the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) lobbied the state government repeatedly since 2015 to provide consistent funding to recruit staff and cater for heightened demand,fuelled by Victoria’s population growth and unexpected events.

Victorians have endured long waits for ambulances through triple-zero delays.

Victorians have endured long waits for ambulances through triple-zero delays.Wayne Taylor

With 33 deaths now linked to acollapse of call-taking performance and “agency command and control issues”, Inspector-General for Emergency Management Tony Pearce said on Monday the$333 million pledged by the government in this year’s budget was a “short-term fix”.

His review into ESTA’s ambulance call performance found the government had still not delivered a sustainable funding model for the service,almost a decade after work began.

“They talk about $333 million … that’s fine,but again it only provides resources to ESTA for a four-year period,” he toldThe Age.

“That’s not good enough,that’s a short-term fix. In four years’ time if you don’t finish the work on that model,you will be back in the same place you are now.”

Inspector-General for Emergency Management Tony Pearce.

Inspector-General for Emergency Management Tony Pearce.Paul Jeffers

Pearce said the authority had received an annual 2.5 per cent increase in fees from Victoria’s emergency services agencies,but this couldn’t keep up with the growth in population and call demand,and “they got to a point in time where they simply couldn’t keep up with the work”.

He said the government provided additional funding on an “ad hoc” basis,which meant it was difficult for ESTA to plan for the recruitment of extra workers if there was no certainty they would be paid in the future.

ESTA’s annual reports show it spent more money than it earned for much of the past decade,meaning it often needed to seek one-off funding boosts to keep running.

From 2015,the authority repeatedly requested a more stable funding model but was rebuffed by the government,according to three ESTA sources speaking anonymously to detail confidential negotiations.

Pearce’s report found ESTA’s funding model was “evidently insufficient” and “in early 2020 ESTA did not have the required budget and contingency funding to recruit significant numbers of additional operational staff for periods longer than three to six months”.

“These financial constraints proved to be the main cause of ESTA’s inability to develop capacity to meet the scenarios that were played out in the COVID-19 Delta and Omicron waves,” he wrote.

When COVID cases began increasing in spring last year,ESTA did not have enough ambulance call takers to meet the demand even though the surge in demand was lower than the agency forecast. Call times have improved in recent months.

Parents ofcritically ill toddlers and children were among the tens of thousands ofVictorians forced to wait minutes – sometimes 15 minutes or more – to reach a triple-zero operator.

The new details add to mounting evidence the government repeatedly failed to act on warnings about problems at ESTA that posed a genuine threat to the public. All 33 deaths noted in the Pearce report have been referred to the coroner.

Unions representing ESTA operators for police,fire and ambulance services raised the alarm in 2018 about ESTA’s funding model,when they submitted to a separate inquiry and questioned whether “ESTA could perform to a higher level if assigned an operating budget by the government that better supports its functionality”.

“The unions note the current need for ESTA to seek ‘top up’ or supplementary funding from the government to continue operations on a regular basis,” the submission,obtained byThe Age,stated.

“This review should look into whether current funding arrangements for ESTA are sufficient for effective emergency management.”

Victorian Ambulance Union secretary Danny Hill.

Victorian Ambulance Union secretary Danny Hill.Supplied

Victorian Ambulance Union secretary Danny Hill said the broken funding mode prevented the authority from recruiting sufficient staff to respond to future disasters like thunderstorm asthma events or a pandemic.

He said unions campaigned since 2015 for minimum staffing requirements. He said the refusal to establish a minimum staffing requirement was probably a combined decision made by ESTA and the government.

“We were never successful,” he said of the union’s demands.

The state opposition on Monday branded Premier Daniel Andrews a “coward” for failing to address the media for three consecutive days.

The opposition and commentators have criticised the government for releasing Pearce’s report on Saturday,during the first weekend of the AFL finals. Some journalists were given less than an hour’s notice to attend a CBD event to read the report before its release.

A senior government source confirmed cabinet ministers were first shown a copy of the report and the government’s response on Friday afternoon,before its public release on Saturday morning.

Deputy Premier Jacinta Allan said there was nothing irregular about the timing. Emergency Services Minister Jaclyn Symes – who faced union calls to resign,but only became the responsible minister late last year – received the report in early August.

The government has accepted all recommendations from Pearce’s report,including funding reform.

Emergency Services Minister Jaclyn Symes discusses the review into Victoria’s triple-zero operator system,with ESTA boss Stephen Leane (left) and review author Tony Pearce.

Emergency Services Minister Jaclyn Symes discusses the review into Victoria’s triple-zero operator system,with ESTA boss Stephen Leane (left) and review author Tony Pearce.Paul Jeffers

In October 2021,ESTA submitted a report to the government about options for future funding and another report was due in March,but the government has prioritised immediate actions such as boosting staff numbers before committing to a long-term solution.

Pearce’s report said the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office had raised concerns about ESTA’s funding shortfall five years before the pandemic,giving it a “red light” for financial stability and indicating a high risk of immediate sustainability concerns.

“The Victorian Government was aware of ESTA’s precarious financial position as early as 2015,” Pearce wrote.

The Age previously reported Victoria’s then-deputy premier James Merlino was told in 2016 that ESTA operators were so overworked they were unable to take proper breaks or access leave,and they were expected to work overtime even when some were suffering stress and mental health issues.

Deputy Premier Jacinta Allan responds to opposition calls for Emergency Services Minister Jaclyn Symes to resign because of delays in the triple 0 call system.

By the time massive increases in ESTA’s funding were announced in 2021,the call-taking crisis was already underway.

In comparison,the NSW triple-zero service run by NSW Ambulance was able to “recruit aggressively” in the first months of the COVID pandemic,allowing it to weather the Omicron wave without a major collapse of call performance,according to the inspector-general’s report.

Pearce’s report also said Symes was due to provide the government with a recommendation on a future funding model for ESTA in March 2022 but “that at the time of this review,the final report back had not been completed”.

When asked about the minimum staffing models on Monday,Allan said the triple-zero call-taker system consistently met its performance benchmarks until the pandemic hit in early 2020. The opposition argued this was inaccurate.

“What we saw was a consequence of the global pandemic that put unprecedented pressure on health systems and associated emergency services responses around Victoria,around the country,around the world,” Allan said.

The government did not answer specific questions about ESTA or the unions’ unsuccessful funding requests.

A spokeswoman said the government provided a “substantial” amount of money both and during the pandemic and emphasised the funding boost prompted by the recent tumult at the authority.

With Melissa Cunningham

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Aisha Dow is health editor with The Age and a former city reporter.

Paul Sakkal is a political reporter for The Age.

Sumeyya Ilanbey is a state political reporter for The Age.

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