Victoria's triple-0 call-takers under pressure as they watch 'calls piling up'
An emergency call-taker for Victoria's ambulance services says it is not unusual for her to receive text alerts requesting for more staff to work overtime before she even clocks on.
As COVID-19 cases grow across the state, pressure is mounting on the triple-0 service and its workers who are being increasingly asked to take on overtime and extra shifts.
Anna, who asked that her real name be withheld, said call-takers were well aware when they signed up for the job that emergency situations would require them to "pretty much drop everything and come in".
"They can't keep sending out [messages] so they're just [saying] 'hey, if you can do overtime, we appreciate it, but we also understand you're struggling, so look after yourself first'."
Long days become longer
According to Anna, even without the extra pressure of overtime, the workday of ambulance call-takers with the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) has dramatically changed during the pandemic.
They work 12-hour shifts, beginning either at 6:30am or 6:30pm.
Anna said pre-pandemic each call-taker on a day shift would have two minutes between calls.
"[Now] as soon as you get off a call, you're on another one, straight away," she said.
"We're meant to get a break every hour and a half because it's just so mentally taxing.
"But at the moment, we're not really getting those breaks because there are so many calls waiting.
"We're in the job because we want to help people and you can see those calls piling up.
Staffing levels in focus
Earlier this month, the Victorian government announced former police chief Graham Ashton would lead a review of ESTA, amid revelations two people died after triple-0 calls went unanswered for more than five minutes.
ESTA chief executive Marty Smyth said the organisation was launching its "biggest ever call-taking recruitment drive" to cope with demand.
The authority is recruiting 43 new full-time equivalent staff members in call-taking, dispatch and mental health support roles, with funding it received in this year's state budget.
"We have also added additional training courses to allow for a greater number of trainees to progress across all our centres," Mr Smyth said.
He said the number of call-takers rostered depended on the daily forecast in call numbers, but "almost unprecedented call levels in recent weeks" had caused major stress on the service.
Anna said 10 to 24 call-takers were rostered for ambulance services at any one time, where there had previously been a minimum of 16 overnight call-takers and more than 20 during the day.
Call for emergencies only
Becoming a triple-0 call-taker requires months of training after some personality assessments and aptitude tests.
Mr Smyth said ESTA had "existing strategies in place" for overtime shifts and would "continue to work with government on other potential measures that might support increasing capacity within our workforce".
He said ESTA had re-employed past call-takers and dispatchers and recalled operational employees on secondments.
Anna said she worried people in genuine need, including the elderly, would be the ones deterred from calling triple-0.
But she urged those who do seek emergency help to listen calmly to the call-takers.
"What they don't see is everything we are doing behind the scenes to help them," Anna said.
"We ask specific questions because that's what would determine an emergency."