'How many people have to die?' - Paramedics at breaking point

Dewi Preece
Source: 1News

They're the front line of our health service, but paramedics say they're the ones in need of support.

"I think strained would be an understatement. We are at breaking point," an anonymous St John Ambulance paramedic told 1News.

Soaring demands on ambulance services across New Zealand has led to some patients waiting hours for ambulances in non-life-threatening situations.

St John Ambulance's deputy chief executive of ambulance operations, Dan Ohs, says demand is well beyond the upper limit of their forecasts for this time of year.

They've also seen 30,000 more callouts compared to last year.

"It's absolutely a perfect storm. We're the busiest we've ever been. It's the most challenging environment we've ever had for our service, our staff and our patients," Ohs said.

And in some cases, patients are suffering as a result, according to the anonymous paramedic.

"It looks like your grandma laying on the bathroom floor from 9 at night 'til 7 o'clock in the morning," he said.

"It sees jobs sitting there for over 24 hours in Auckland. The sad reality is you don't die from pain, therefore with a strained service your job just drops to the back of the queue. And you just wait and wait."

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St John says the longest wait for an ambulance pickup in Auckland over the past four weeks was 15 hours for a GP referral for transport only from home.

"That's a lot longer than we would like to have people waiting in the community," said Ohs.

St John says ongoing vacancies in the service (125 at present) and 'ramping' at hospitals - where ambulances are delayed offloading patients at emergency departments - is contributing to the strain on the overall system.

"We're seeing up to 7.5% of our time being parked up at emergency departments - that's 107 hours a day. That's a lot of time we're parked up... rather than outside serving the community," Ohs said.

He added that at times, 8% of staff are off sick, but the anonymous paramedic says they're not sick, they're burnt out.

"Staff are sick not because of the flu, they're sick because of burnout, because they can't face another 12-hour night shift with a meal break at 3 o'clock."

St John says help is on the way though, with more than 100 trainees set to boost the workforce before the end of November, as well as overseas recruits.

They've also secured a new four-year contract with the Government to boost resourcing in Auckland, where they're at least one ambulance down each day.

But that hasn't stopped First Union, which represents a number of paramedics across the country, from petitioning for ambulance services to fall back under public ownership.

"New Zealanders need an ambulance service that they can rely on, not one that relies on their donations, and our members feel very strongly about that," said First Union national ambulance organiser Faye McCann.

"There are always going to be issues no matter where the ambulance service sits, but there's definitely a feeling out there that the service sitting with a charity is the wrong model for New Zealand."

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St John still feel equipped for the service, however.

"Ultimately here at St John, we think we do a great job of running the emergency ambo service. However we recognise there's always an ongoing discussion around improvements," Ohs said.

Whether those improvements come soon enough for some, the biggest issue facing the service.

"I'm going to be one of the ones that will leave shortly because I'm broken," the anonymous paramedic said.