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Patients' lives put at risk by glitches in NSW Ambulance GPS tracking: union

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Ambulance GPS system ‘failed’

Twelve-year-old location tracking system sending NSW Ambulances to wrong locations, warns the Australian Paramedics Association.



Paramedics are being wrongly dispatched to triple-zero calls from up to 50 kilometres away by a failing tracking system that frequently loses ambulances on NSW roads. 

The glitches in the NSW Ambulance GPS system are risking the lives of sick and injured patients and leaving paramedics vulnerable without reliable police backup, the Australian Paramedics Association said. 

Ambulances are disappearing daily from the tracking system used by control centre dispatchers to send the nearest possible vehicle to respond to a triple-zero call, the APA said.

Australian Paramedic Association NSW president Steve Pearce said the GPS system was failing daily.

Australian Paramedic Association NSW president Steve Pearce said the GPS system was failing daily. Photo: Colin Cosier

A survey of over 400 paramedics found 94 per cent had experienced problems with the NSW Ambulance vehicle tracking system used by controllers to locate every vehicle out on a job.

More than half of the 427 paramedics surveyed said the system had incorrectly tracked their location either every shift or every working week. 

“It’s failing. It’s failing nearly every day,” said APA NSW president Steve Pearce.

“If we’re not getting to certain life-threatening conditions quickly people will die … that’s a risk that’s in play now,” he said.

The system frequently indicated ambulances were up to 50 kilometres from their actual location.

The errors meant dispatchers were sending far-flung ambulances to medical emergencies, unaware that other vehicles were far closer, Mr Pearce said.

Dispatchers are left scrambling to locate ambulances that disappear from their computer screens, unable to pick up a signal from the automatic vehicle location device fitted to each vehicle. 

“That takes time, time that some patients don’t have,” Mr Pearce said.

“Their dispatchers just don’t know where we are. They’re blind if the data they’re looking at on their computer screen isn’t accurate,” Mr Pearce said.

The system is meant to update every 60 seconds.

“We’ve just come to a point where it’s really important that the [health] minister and Premier intervene to take the necessary steps to resolve this as quickly as possible.”

Past president of the APA Wayne Flint likened the errors to an air traffic control centre losing planes. 

The tracking system also serves a protective function for paramedics. If a crew is attacked on the job they can hit their duress alarm. But the errors meant police had been sent to the wrong locations in some instances.

The APA detailed one case where a pair of paramedics under attack had activated their alarm.

But police officers were incorrectly sent to the home of one of the paramedics, leaving his wife to tell them her husband – potentially in a life-threatening situation – was somewhere else. 

In another case paramedics activated the alarm while they were transporting a violent passenger to hospital, but instead of intercepting the ambulance on the move, the system sent police to where the patient had been picked up. 

A radio frequency engineer consultant commissioned by NSW Ambulance to review the system found geographical blackspots across NSW where the system had been failing, Mr Pearce said.

Ambulances winding their way through Sydney streets would often fall into “black holes” between areas with towering buildings, which disrupted the signal, Mr Pearce said. 

Paramedics have been complaining about glitches in the system for the past three years. It runs on the 2G phone network, due to be disconnected in December, the APA said. 

“Our paramedics, we see this as a crisis that needs to be sorted out immediately,” he said.

“Given that so in many other spaces it seems to be able to be done I think the public deserve much better than what we currently have,” Mr Pearce said referring to tracking systems used by ride-sharing service Uber and food delivery offerings.

NSW Ambulance met with unions on Thursday to update them on the progress of an upgrade funded by $20 million from the state government over two years. 

The first stage of that upgrade was expected to be completed by December, NSW Ambulance said in a statement. 

“The current duress functionality is also being refreshed as part of the upgrade work being undertaken in stage one,” NSW Ambulance said.

“The project has assessed a range of additional technologies to be implemented into ambulance vehicles including wifi capability, which will further improve interoperability and support frontline paramedics in mission critical communications,” the statement read.

The engineer consultant made four recommendations regarding technical and policy aspects of the system that were currently being considered, NSW Ambulance said.

In 2014 the Queensland Ambulance Service made their tracking system publicly accessible via their website

Individuals can track the number of ambulances on the road at any time and view their locations in real time within 50 metres. 

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