OPINION:  Staffing crisis for emergency services

THE O’Farrell government has been treating our public services, like health and fire rescue, as a giant game of musical chairs.

The public is now discovering what happens when the music stops. 

When Barry O’Farrell was elected in 2011, the state’s public sector workers took him at his word. He promised he wouldn’t countenance dramatic cutbacks, restructures or mass sackings. 

Indeed, the campaign-mode Barry O’Farrell insisted that his government would actually require more public sector workers. 

Fast forward to the present day and it’s clear just how misplaced that trust was. 

Along with 15,000public sector job cuts announced in the past two budgets, each major government department has been told it has to fit within a labour expense cap. 

This wily piece of political trickery requires some explaining.

It means that rather than taking direct responsibility for service cuts, the O’Farrell government has forced department managers to come up with the cuts themselves. 

Take Fire and Rescue NSW.

The government has told management it needs to shave $64million from what it spends on its workforce over four years. 

So the can gets kicked down the road to the Fire Commissioner who now has to make an impossible choice: cut jobs or shut fire stations. 

Anyone who has been following the news will know the decision that fire brigade management made. 

Since late last year, fire stations have started closing periodically.

Whenever a firefighter calls in sick or injured – which is pretty unremarkable given the demanding and dangerous nature of the job – their shift is no longer replaced. 

That means the local station has to shut, with the remaining staff shifted to another suburb. The upshot is simple: a fire truck is likely to take longer to arrive at an emergency. 

The Hunter has already seen its fire stations shut down on numerous occasions.

The brutal truth is that there is now an increased likelihood that a house will burn down in this region because it took a fire crew too long to arrive from a distant station. 

That’s not fearmongering.

It is simply the price that the O’Farrell government is apparently willing to pay in order to make cuts. 

And it is not as if the problem is purely restricted to fire services. When it comes to irresponsible cuts putting public safety at risk, the ambulance service is just as much of a problem. 

With the O’Farrell government now demanding $3billion in cuts over the next four years, ambulance lines across the Hunter have also been forced to shut down periodically. 

The reason this issue has not been as prominent is simply because ambulance management is not being as upfront about the closures. 

Yet on January 25, for example, Kurri ambulance station was closed, and the crew that would otherwise have been based there was deployed instead to Muswellbrook. 

Any local can tell you how much of a difference that would make to response times in the area. 

Indeed, you don’t even have to do the maths yourself – local paramedics are already reporting that response times have blown out by up to half an hour in some instances.

That can too often be the difference between life and death. 

Although the $3billion in prescribed cuts are being taken from all over the health system, nurses are exempt – a classic O’Farrell government play aimed at splitting the resolve of public sector workers. 

But because of this, deeper cuts have to be found elsewhere. As the Newcastle Herald reported last month, the drive for savings has become so desperate that Hunter New England Health is considering axing its asbestos removal unit. 

People in the Hunter and, indeed, across NSW, have every right to ask: are these kinds of cuts really necessary?

Surely things have to reach a pretty dire state before our state government starts cutting back on fire and ambulance response times and forcing the closure of a unit set up to prevent asbestos-related disease. 

That’s especially the case when we are talking about a government that has managed to find hundreds of millions to gift to the NSW insurance industry by slashing workers’ compensation entitlements and seeking to introduce a household fire tax. 

And it’s especially the case when we are talking about a government that managed to ‘lose’ $1billion from the state budget until it was later found by the Auditor-General. 

The people of the Hunter have the right to be questioning this government very hard indeed.

Mark Lennon is the secretary of Unions NSW

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