Overworked paramedics across Sydney are being asked to drive ambulance vehicles home after their shifts so they can respond to emergency calls when they are clocked off as part of a crisis strategy during the Omicron outbreak.
Paramedics in the city are already “drunk on fatigue”, said Chris Kastelan, New South Wales president of the Australian Paramedics Association, with many working 13-hour shifts in recent weeks.
Now, as demand for medical care soars and workers are caught up in isolation requirements, NSW Ambulance has begun placing paramedics across metropolitan Sydney “on call” – a practice traditionally only used in rural settings where smaller populations don’t require permanent overnight staffed shifts.
In an interview with Guardian Australia’s Full Story podcast, Kastelan suggested it was unprecedented for paramedics to be on call in Sydney, where there were already designated overnight shifts.
He warned that the conditions paramedics were working in now were becoming unsafe.
“People will have done a 12- or 13-hour shift and then they’ll go home on call, so they’ll take an ambulance and equipment home. And normally on call in the Sydney metropolitan area is not something that gets utilised very often, you know, hardly ever at all … but in the last month or two, it’s become very common for people to be asked to take ambulances home,” he said.
“They’ve just done a 12-hour, 13-hour shift, they’re just about to jump in the shower to debrief, to have a meal, to spend some time with their family, and then the phone rings again.
“Then they’ve got to go straight back out … and they’re out for another four or five or six hours doing multiple calls. Now these people are, you know, they are drunk on fatigue. They are tired. They’ve got to back up and do it all again the very next day,” he said.
A NSW Ambulance spokesman confirmed the agency had been forced to resort to on-call practices across metropolitan Sydney.
Kastelan said he knew of paramedics in Sydney suffering sleeping disorders, gastric upsets and migraines as a result of the heightened workload in recent weeks.
“I’m just not sure whether that’s a safe workforce.
“They want to help the community, and it’s very hard to turn off sometimes and particularly when there’s nobody left to do it.”
Kastelan said he believed NSW Ambulance, the state government provider of ambulances, had leaned on the tactic in Sydney as a last resort.
“I would suggest that the fact that that’s happening shows that the rostering or the staffing levels for both metropolitan Sydney and regional NSW is just not enough for the workload at this point in time,” he said.
Pleas for paramedics to be on call while they rest are now common across Sydney, Guardian Australia understands. This masthead has seen requests from the north, south-east and western suburbs of Sydney, as well as in the Blue Mountains.
An NSW Ambulance spokesman told Guardian Australia that “as we continue to respond to the surge in cases associated with the Omicron variant of Covid-19, opportunities for on-call rostering have been offered to staff in metropolitan areas who have expressed an interest and are willing to assist”.
“On-call has been offered in line with the NSW Ambulance fatigue policy, to ensure staff are provided the opportunity to rest and recover, before and at the conclusion of their shift,” the spokesman said.
The spokesman also urged the community “to ‘save triple zero for saving lives’ to ensure we can assist the most urgent patients as quickly as possible”.
Last week, NSW Ambulance’s seven-day rolling average for triple zero callouts was nearly 4,500 per day. Prior to the Omicron outbreak, there had never been more than 4,000 calls recorded on a single day.
Paramedics in Victoria were also under significant strain, following the red alert issued by Ambulance Victoria last week.
However, Guardian Australia understands that authorities in Victoria have not resorted to placing paramedics in Melbourne on call.
“We would never ever see that sort of arrangement happening in a regional centre in Victoria, let alone metropolitan Melbourne. So if they’re doing that in Sydney to cope that’s pretty bad,” a source with knowledge of the ambulance system in Victoria said.