NSW Ambulance call takers and ESTA team leaders at ESTA’s Williams Landing centre.

Welcome to Melbourne

Twelve NSW Ambulance call takers were greeted warmly when they arrived at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport on 20 November 2021.

Stephen Leane, interim CEO of Victoria’s Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) was among the welcoming party.

Kevin Griffiths, from NSW Ambulance’s Northern Control Centre in Newcastle, Alana Heskey from Sydney Control Centre, and Ann Collie from Southern Operations in Wollongong were part of deployment.

“We felt appreciated from the moment we arrived and nothing was ever too much trouble,” said Kevin.

The call taker deployment – the first ever between the two states – was off to a perfect start. Initially intended to be for three months, the historic deployment arose from conversations between service leaders at a Council of Ambulance Authorities event earlier in the year.

At the time, the Delta outbreak had taken its toll in Victoria, and ESTA’s ambulance call takers were under pressure and exhausted.

In these pre-Omicron times, NSW Ambulance saw the chance to respond to help out another ambulance service in need. After calls for Expressions of Interest, a group of experienced NSW Ambulance call takers was assembled and headed south of the border.

Working Christmas Day at ESTA’s Ballarat centre.

Cracking the Codes

The call taker deployment began with a week of theory at ESTA’s Williams Landing site, then five days of mentoring at the Tally Ho site in Burwood in Melbourne’s east.

Doone Barrett was one of three ESTA team leaders who signed up to look after the NSW group.

It’s not just railway gauges that differ from state to state across Australia, ambulance systems and applications vary widely as well.

As a former rural dispatcher in Victoria, Doone was familiar with these cross-border nuances.

“Call takers in both states use the ProQA medical priority dispatch system, although NSW uses an extra protocol,” explained Doone.

“However, the Victorian CAD system is very different and has a totally different interface. There are also differences in the way ambulance bookings from hospitals and doctors’ surgeries are processed.”

Ambulance terminology also varies widely.

“We had to learn a whole new system of codes. Even fundamental terms like job (NSW) and event (Victoria) are different,” explained Kevin Griffiths.

After a week of training and familiarisation, the management contingent in the group returned to NSW, leaving six new recruits ready to take calls from the Victorian public.

Calling for Victoria

The NSW Ambulance call takers worked in all three ESTA centres during their deployment – the Tally Ho site in Burwood East, Ballarat and Williams Landing.

“At the start Victorian mentors paired up and listened in as the NSW call takers took Victorian Triple Zero calls,” said Doone.

“Before long I was logging in next to them and taking calls myself.

“They were all so positive and worked so hard. Their empathy was amazing.”

The team even worked Christmas Day, shrugging off any homesickness by working together at the Ballarat centre.

“ESTA staff were really blown away and so thankful that we were there. Around the centres, everyone came up to say hello and express how appreciative they were for the assistance, especially given it was over the Christmas and New Year period,” said Kevin.

One of the highlights for the NSW team was working at Williams Landing, ESTA’s new purpose-built centre in Melbourne’s west.

“At Williams Landing, they have police, fire and ambulance call takers all in the same room,” said Alana. “This kind of cross-service experience was new to us.”

“We were actually the first ambulance call takers to work there, which was a real privilege,” said Kevin.

Crucially, the NSW call takers helped reduce the Victorian call load.

“At the start everyone was going from call to call. Within a few weeks, we had enough time to debrief between calls,” said Alana.

“They helped us immensely,” agreed Doone.

Learning and hopes for the future

Despite the early ending, there are already tangible benefits from the collaboration.

There’s a great sense of pride and achievement in those who took part.

“We were starting to make a difference and had great feedback,” said Ann Collie.

“It makes you appreciate the role you have in your own organisation too. I think it made us better call takers.”

The good will generated is something participants are keen to build on in the future.

“I really hope this is more than a one-off,” said ESTA’s Doone Barrett, echoing the hopes of the NSW call takers.

“Connecting across borders and understanding each other’s systems gives us a stronger shared sense of purpose and professional pride, which will lead to better patient outcomes in the long run.”

The NSW Ambulance staff who participated in the deployment were:

  • Southern Control Centre – Rebecca Wood, Marianne Mikutowski, Julie Brown, Ann Collie, Stephanie Collins, Donna Brotherson, Brendan Scollary „
  • Northern Control Centre – Casey Clegg, Amanda Johnston, Kevin Griffiths
  • Sydney Control Centre – Alana Heskey, Jordan Porteous