Slater and Gordon Lawyers is investigating a class action against Victoria’s Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) over systemic failures in its ambulance call handling operations that has led to multiple potentially avoidable deaths and injuries.
ESTA is the statutory authority responsible for answering triple-zero calls in Victoria and dispatching medical care to critically injured and ill patients. Call-takers also provide potentially life-saving CPR and first aid advice until paramedics arrive.
But at least 15 people, including multiple children, have reportedly died since October last year as calls to the service went unanswered or were picked up too late, contrary to the service’s statutory obligations.
Slater and Gordon’s investigations suggest that thousands of other emergency callers have experienced avoidable and unacceptable delays in their calls being answered, as well as delays in ambulances being dispatched. This has been extremely distressing for the callers and in some cases, is likely to have resulted in unnecessary health complications.
Ninety per cent of triple-zero calls for ambulance requests are meant to be answered by ESTA within five seconds.
Slater and Gordon class actions Senior Associate Gemma Leigh-Dodds said systemic failures in how ESTA has run its core call answering and dispatch operations date back to 2014. Records show that the authority has failed to meet its minimum statutory benchmarks for response times to dispatch ambulances for the most serious requests every year between 2016 and 2021.
“The health system has been under strain in recent years, but Victorians should always be able to register a call for help,” she said. “ESTA’s critical role means its shortcomings are not just unfortunate, we believe they have led to multiple deaths and injuries that could have been prevented.
“In a critical health situation, minutes can be the difference between life and death, a one-off injury or a life-long medical condition. Callers are relying on ESTA to get medics on the scene as soon as possible.
“We believe ESTA has breached its statutory and common law obligations by not providing its required service when callers expect to be connected to urgent medical help in a timely manner.”
She said the class action investigation was focusing on triple-zero calls for ambulance requests requiring a Code 1 response – lights and sirens to treat patients as soon as possible – that were delayed or went unanswered by ESTA. It is not against paramedics.
The law firm is investigating whether those who have been let down by ESTA’s call handling services are entitled to compensation. The investigation will also consider unreasonable delays by ESTA to connect callers to ambulances and dispatch the help needed.
“We are investigating whether family members of those whose loved ones have died due to ESTA call-taking and dispatch delays are entitled to damages for nervous shock and economic loss,” she said.
“Anyone who has suffered physical injuries that were either caused or exacerbated by excessive delays due to ESTA’s call handling processes may also be entitled to damages, as well as those who have suffered psychological conditions such as PTSD, anxiety and depression.
“We are encouraging anyone who has lost a loved one or whose physical or psychological injuries can be attributed to ESTA call handling delays to register their details and experience with us as part of our investigation.”
In addition to the class action investigation, Slater and Gordon is already acting for multiple clients, including children, who have suffered significant injuries following ESTA call handling failures.
ESTA’s ongoing operational deficiencies have been blamed on factors including staff shortages, incorrect forecasting, IT and other technical problems, as well as an increase in demand on the service during the Covid-19 Delta outbreak.
But Ms Leigh-Dodds said there had only been a 1.2 per cent increase in overall calls made to ESTA in the 2021 financial year compared to the previous year.
“ESTA is a service that needs to be able to quickly respond to significant events, including pandemics, and ensure that it has the operational ability to get the job done,” she said.
“We believe ESTA knew about its operational deficiencies but failed to rectify them when it had the opportunity several years ago.”
ESTA’s CEO Marty Smyth resigned in October following widespread media coverage of long and life-threatening wait times for ambulances across the state.
The 15 deaths linked to call delays have been referred to the coroner, and Victoria’s Inspector-General for Emergency Management Tony Pearce is also conducting a major review into the failings of the system.
A separate probe led by former Victoria Police chief Graham Ashton was released last week, which found “continued and systematic” underperformance at ESTA and said the number of times the service failed has continued to grow, “often with dire outcomes”.
The 84-page report made 20 recommendations, including moving ESTA into the Department of Justice and Community Safety, renaming it Triple Zero Victoria, and disbanding the current board, which have been accepted by the government in principle.
Anyone who has lost a loved one, or who believes they have suffered an injury because of ESTA call-taking failures, can register at https://www.slatergordon.com.au/esta