Volunteers used instead of paramedics during Grampians bushfires: Union

VICTORIA’S ambulance union has claimed Ambulance Victoria sent volunteers to Halls Gap but did not call in off-duty paramedics as Grampians bushfires raged last month.

Ambulance Employees Association secretary Steve McGhie said paramedics in Stawell and Horsham remained at home, despite Ambulance Victoria having the power to call them to work.

In a serious emergency, Ambulance Victoria has the power to call off-duty paramedics to ask them to attend.

“The information we have from off-duty paramedics is that they weren’t even contacted,” Mr McGhie said.

“We don’t believe they are ringing people on annual leave. 

“They might not have returned to work but they weren’t even called.”

Mr McGhie said while volunteers were a valuable asset to emergency services in rural and regional Victoria, they could not act as a substitute for trained paramedics.

“Volunteers do a good job up to the level they are trained, which is as a first-aider, whereas paramedics have a three-year degree and 12 months of on-road training,” he said. 

Ambulance Victoria’s Grampians regional manager Greg Leach said volunteers were used during the fire but denied it was at the expense of trained paramedics.

“On one 43-degree day, an extra crew of ambulance community officers was added to provide supplementary support to the usual Stawell and Horsham crews that were fully staffed by Ambulance Victoria paramedics,” he said. 

“The ACO crew did not replace or work in place of any Ambulance Victoria rostered shifts and it was not engaged in response to the fire.”

The allegations come as talks in a protracted industrial dispute between the union and the State Government broke down on Monday, with the government labelling the union as petulant.

Mr McGhie identified the plan to increase the number of volunteers in rural Victoria as one of the main concerns the union had in negotiations, but Ambulance Victoria chief executive Greg Sassella rejected the union’s claims that ambulance community officers would start to take paramedic jobs. 

“Allegations that Ambulance Victoria plans to expand the role of volunteers to replace paramedics is simply not true,” he said.

“We are seeking more flexibility for ACOs to work outside of their local communities if they want to and potentially transport low acuity patients so that trained paramedics remain in their local community.”

A spokesman for Victorian Health Minister David Davis said the number of paramedics in the Wimmera had increased under the Coalition.

He implored the union to stop playing politics and return to the negotiating table.

Mr McGhie promised any industrial action taken by the union during the dispute would not affect the safety and welfare of people living in the Wimmera.

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