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Class action investigation announced into Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority

National plaintiff firm Slater and Gordon is undertaking an investigation into Victoria’s Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) in relation to failures of its ambulance call and dispatch operations, which the firm says “resulted in multiple deaths and injuries”.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 24 May 2022 Big Law
Class action investigation announced into Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority
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The firm is investigating a class action over “systemic failures” by ESTA, the statutory authority responsible for answering triple-zero calls in Victoria and dispatching medical care to critically injured and ill patients. Ninety per cent of triple-zero calls to the service for ambulances are supposed to be answered by ESTA within five seconds, Slater and Gordon said.

At least 15 people, the firm said – including multiple children – have reportedly died since October 2021 “as calls to the service went unanswered or were picked up too late, contrary to the service’s statutory obligations”.

The deaths linked to call delays have been referred to the coroner, and Victoria’s Inspector-General for Emergency Management is also conducting a major review into the failings of the system.

 
 

The announced investigation follows the release last week of a state senate probe, led by former Victoria Police chief Graham Ashton, which found “continued and systematic” underperformance at ESTA and which said that the number of times the service failed has continued to grow, “often with dire outcomes”.

Slater and Gordon’s investigations, it proclaimed in a statement, suggested that thousands of other emergency callers have experienced avoidable and unacceptable delays in their calls being answered, as well as delays in ambulances being dispatched.

This has been “extremely distressing” for the callers, the firm argued, and in some cases, is likely to have resulted in unnecessary health complications.

Speaking about the investigation, Slater and Gordon senior associate Gemma Leigh-Dodds said that systemic failures regarding the authority’s call answering and dispatch operations date back to 2014.

Records show, she said, that the authority has “failed to meet its minimum statutory benchmarks for response times to dispatch ambulances for the most serious requests every year between 2016 and 2021”.

“The health system has been under strain in recent years, but Victorians should always be able to register a call for help,” Ms Leigh-Dodds submitted.

“ESTA’s critical role means its shortcomings are not just unfortunate, we believe they have led to multiple deaths and injuries that could have been prevented.

“In a critical health situation, minutes can be the difference between life and death, a one-off injury or a life-long medical condition. Callers are relying on ESTA to get medics on the scene as soon as possible.

“We believe ESTA has breached its statutory and common law obligations by not providing its required service when callers expect to be connected to urgent medical help in a timely manner.”

The class action investigation is focused on triple-zero calls for ambulance requests requiring a Code 1 response – that is, lights and sirens to treat patients as soon as possible – that were delayed or went unanswered by ESTA.

Proceedings that may be brought, she noted, will not be against paramedics.

Slater and Gordon is investigating whether those who have been let down by ESTA’s call handling services are entitled to compensation and shall consider unreasonable delays by ESTA to connect callers to ambulances and dispatch the help needed.

Ms Leigh Dodds: “We are investigating whether family members of those whose loved ones have died due to ESTA call-taking and dispatch delays are entitled to damages for nervous shock and economic loss.

“Anyone who has suffered physical injuries that were either caused or exacerbated by excessive delays due to ESTA’s call handling processes may also be entitled to damages, as well as those who have suffered psychological conditions such as PTSD, anxiety and depression.

“We are encouraging anyone who has lost a loved one or whose physical or psychological injuries can be attributed to ESTA call handling delays to register their details and experience with us as part of our investigation.”

Elsewhere, Slater and Gordon is already acting for multiple clients (including children), it said, who suffered significant injuries following ESTA call handling failures.

The authority claims, the firm mused, that its ongoing operational deficiencies have been blamed on factors including staff shortages, incorrect forecasting, IT and other technical problems, as well as an increase in demand on the service during the COVID-19 Delta outbreak.

However, there was only a 1.2 per cent increase in overall calls made to ESTA in FY21 compared to the previous year, Ms Leigh-Dodds argued.

“ESTA is a service that needs to be able to quickly respond to significant events, including pandemics, and ensure that it has the operational ability to get the job done,” she said.

“We believe ESTA knew about its operational deficiencies but failed to rectify them when it had the opportunity several years ago.”