Ambulance dispute widens


By Sean Healy MELBOURNE — The dispute between the Victorian government and the Ambulance Employees Association (AEA) has escalated over the last week with the former threatening to use its emergency powers legislation and privatise the service if ambulance officers did not back down from an 18% pay claim. The dispute intensified after two incidents — on October 4 and 7 — in which under-resourcing and a new communications dispatch system were blamed for dangerous delays in the service. In the first incident, a boy, 8, died after waiting more than seven minutes for an ambulance to transfer him 350 metres from the helipad to the Royal Children's Hospital. In the second, dispatchers sent ambulances to a car crash whilst another ambulance, much closer to the site, was left idle. The root cause of the Metropolitan Ambulance Service's problems lies in government cuts to services and the privatisation of the MAS's communications centre: more than 30 ambulances have been taken off the road and more than 300 officers made redundant as a result of the cuts. The union estimates that the cuts have forced ambulance officers to add between 10 and 30 hours per week to their 42-hour roster. The new, privately-owned and -operated communications system, Intergraph, has also been criticised. On October 9, the Labor opposition released an Intergraph log which showed dispatchers repeatedly complaining that ambulances couldn't be picked up by the system and that it was locking up. The government has refused to acknowledge any problems either with Intergraph or with its funding levels, blaming the incidents on union work bans, a claim the AEA has rejected. "The government has not yet acknowledged it has a resourcing problem. That will be a separate battle and without doubt it will continue", said AEA acting general secretary Rod Morris. The government has, for the first time, threatened to use its emergency powers under the Vital Industries Act. The legislation, introduced in 1992 soon after the Kennett government's election, gives it the power to declare any industry "vital", declare a state of emergency and fine unions and individuals up to $250,000 for continuing strike action. Both the nurses' and firefighters' unions have threatened industrial action if the emergency measures are taken. St John Ambulance and the Red Cross, touted as playing a greater role in a privatised service, have rejected the government's moves, with Red Cross stating that "we certainly wouldn't want to act as strike-breakers".

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