NSW has about 35 full-time ambulance officers per head of population compared to an average of about 40. Photo: Darren Pateman
A man has died in central western NSW while waiting for an ambulance to arrive, marking the sixth death in less than a year that has occurred after over-stretched ambulances have been unable to get to patients on time.
Fairfax Media can reveal that the 81-year-old man suffered a heart attack at Canowindra on Saturday evening, but there were no paramedics available in his local station due to staff shortages and sick leave.
Paramedics in the area have complained on more than one occasion about staffing shortages in the central west region, but this is the first tragedy that has occurred. However, NSW Ambulance says the region is adequately staffed but it cannot account for unforeseen absences.
Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes said there were dangerous delays across the state linked to resource shortages, but people were lulled into believing they were protected if they had a local ambulance station.
“What most communities don’t realise is that numbers are so short it only takes one paramedic calling in sick to close their local station,” he said.
“This is another tragic example of the potential consequences of an Ambulance Service that has fewer paramedics per head of population compared to other major Australian states”.
According to a productivity commission report released earlier this year, NSW has about 35 full-time ambulance officers per head of population compared to an average of about 40.
Mr Hayes said rural areas were particularly vulnerable, but across Sydney shortages meant ambulances were regularly send to jobs far away from their local area.
“It’s a problem across the board, for example the South East region of Sydney was running nine paramedics short on Saturday,” he said. “There simply aren’t enough paramedics available to cover short term absences, and it’s the community that is left short”.
Fairfax Media understands that on Saturday the closest station that did have an ambulance was Cowra, approximately 24 minutes’ drive away. The ambulance arrived in under 20 minutes, and an off-duty paramedic also responded as soon as they heard, arriving a couple of minutes before the ambulance. The desperate paramedic began to try to resuscitate the man, but when the ambulance arrived it was decided too much time had elapsed and he could not be saved.
Fairfax Media is aware of at least five deaths in the past year that occurred in cases where a person was waiting more than 30 minutes for an ambulance. Emergency cases are supposed to be seen within 10 minutes.
A spokeswoman for NSW Ambulance said the initial call for help came after the man had fallen down stairs, and it was only seven minutes later that the call was upgraded from the second most urgent to most urgent category when further information indicated the man was suffering a heart attack. The NSW Ambulance call-taker tried to instruct the caller to perform CPR, but they were unable to do so because they could not reach or lift him.
“The Central West region has adequate staff numbers to fill its roster,” she said. “However, like any organisation, NSW Ambulance experiences unforseen staff absences due to illness and for personal reasons and makes every effort to fill vacant roster lines when this occurs.”
She said the ambulance priority system ensured those most in need always got the closest ambulance, no matter where it was based.
Adam Searle, the acting Labor health spokesman, said the community was losing faith in the health system, and there must be an independent inquiry into resourcing.
“The Baird government needs to start by acknowledging that the NSW Ambulance Service is in crisis,” he said.