Overtime exhausts paramedics

EXHAUSTED Hunter ambulance station employees racked up more than $5million in overtime last financial year – the cost of employing an extra 50 full-time paramedics, a Newcastle Herald investigation can reveal.

Staff at Hunter stations worked more than 60,000 hours of overtime and paramedics said it was a clear sign the NSW Ambulance Service was chronically understaffed and overworked.

Paramedics told the Herald fatigue meant many officers were refusing to work further overtime, resulting in cars being left unmanned ‘‘every shift’’.

Data obtained under freedom-of-information laws reveals the number of overtime hours worked by Hunter ambulance staff jumped 35per cent in the past six years, from 44,713 hours in 2005-06 to 60,391 hours last financial year.

The cost increased 66per cent, from $3.09million to $5.02million. Health Services Union Hunter ambulance sub-branch president Peter Rumball said he knew one staff member who worked 19 days straight to cover holes in rosters.

Mr Rumball said constant overtime increased risks to employees and the public, as physically fatigued paramedics were more likely to make mistakes and suffer psychological stress.

‘‘Sunday night is our highest-paid shift and we can’t get people to work it, they are just fed up,’’ he said.

‘‘Some days we can be five cars short because we can’t get people to work any more hours.’’

A spokesman for NSW Ambulance Service said overtime was an ‘‘unavoidable’’ part of providing an emergency service.

He said stations in rural areas that could not support 24-hour rosters were staffed by on-call paramedics who were paid overtime for call-outs.

‘‘The Hunter paramedic rosters are at full deployment levels,’’ he said. 

‘‘The money spent on overtime ensures that the community has constant access to the maximum number of paramedics on a shift-by-shift basis.’’

Late last year NSW paramedics distributed bumper stickers stating: ‘‘Caution, Fatigued Paramedics on Duty’’ and ‘‘Stop Revive Survive (Paramedics Excluded)’’.

They urged people to send postcards to the state government with a graphic crash-scene photo on the front and message: ‘‘If you won’t ride with a drink-driver ... why should you accept a fatigued paramedic?’’

Mr Rumball said paramedics ‘‘pushed themselves’’ to do as much overtime as possible because they did not want to let their colleagues down.

‘‘Paramedics are also very community-minded and tend to live in the area where they work so feel a responsibility to make sure the community is covered,’’ he said.

The ambulance service spokesman said the service’s state overtime budget represented 22.8per cent of salaries last financial year, a drop of 7per cent when compared to the previous year.

He said this was achieved by reducing unplanned absences and decreasing shift overtime.

Mr Rumball said the union was fighting for an additional 24 paramedics between Cessnock, Belmont, Birmingham Gardens and Nelson Bay stations.

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