Paramedics are consistently ranked as the most trusted of professionals. Claims that those who go about the business of saving lives are anything less than heroes, is seen by most as nothing short of heresy.
Speaking with both former and currently serving New South Wales paramedics, it quickly became clear to Transgression that those we call on for help are having their own distress calls ignored. Ongoing bullying, neglect and at times downright criminal behavior appears to permeate the service’s ranks.
“I was working day shift with my partner who was a senior officer. We got a call to immediately attend to a young woman who had overdosed. Just as I was about to flick on the lights and siren, my partner remembered that he’d left his personal phone back at the station earlier that day. He ordered me to drive back and pick it up first. This added almost ten minutes to our response time. The patient fortunately ended up being ok, despite the delay. But that was purely down to luck,” explains Jenny* who served for five years as a paramedic with the Ambulance Service of NSW (ASNSW) before throwing in the towel.
Her decision to resign was not because of the difficulties of dealing with the countless traumatic accidents that her role required of her, but because of the trauma and negligence she said she experienced at the hands of her fellow officer’s. “I knew if I reported it, it wouldn’t go anywhere.” Her story was just one of several Transgression came across in the course of compiling this piece.
Making matters worse, when such incidents are brought to the attention of management they are often met with either apathy or hostility.
Jenny also told Transgression that drug use amongst officers was rife. Recent media reports have also alleged similar claims by other officers.
“If they brought in random drug and alcohol testing, I reckon you’d lose at least 30 percent of the workforce within a week,” she said. “There’s a well-known paramedic in the Newcastle area who had bragged openly about his drug taking exploits for years. He’s also on the juice* (steroids)”. Jenny continued, “Not one senior officer has ever spoken to him about this. I’m sure the reason he’s so open about his using is that like all of us, he’s seen management’s complete lack of action when it comes to disciplinary matters.”
Like Jenny, former paramedic Matthew* walked away from the job he loved, citing a toxic workplace as the main reason. “Many potentially great paramedics sign up with the best intentions” he said. “I walked through the doors of the training college at Rozelle, thinking that I’d finally found my true calling. That I would soon be working in a team of dedicated caring professionals.”
Instead, he found himself dismayed at the behavior shown by his coworkers.
“The decent paramedics, I mean the ones you would hope would turn up if you were ever critically ill, they end up leaving. All that’s left are the damaged and sometimes down right dangerous. So they end up getting promoted and the cycle of systemic dysfunction continues,” he said.
Like Jenny, Matthew also didn’t see any point in reporting anything to those in charge. “I was sitting in the lunch room with maybe six others when our DO (District Officer) started casually discussing confidential details of a recent bullying complaint that had been made to him. From that moment on, I realized just how abysmally complaints were handled. It wasn’t a matter of keeping my mouth shut. It was the knowledge that even if I did speak up, who would actually care?”
When eight-year veteran of the service, Steven McDowell, set up the “No More Neglect” Facebook page, he expected perhaps that a handful of his fellow colleagues would join. He never anticipated the hundreds that soon followed, most with their own experience of ill treatment. A survey conducted by the group citied a whopping 75 percent of respondents as having reported being bullied in the workplace. Even more disturbing was the 31 percent who said their abuse had been of a sexual nature.
McDowell shared with Transgression just one, of what he said were many, incidences whereby he witnessed gross workplace misconduct.
“One particular occasion I was called to a job where a man in his 40’s was having an AMI** at his doctor’s surgery. On the way to hospital, he told me in great detail that he’d begun to have chest pain the night before, had called an ambulance and described to the attending paramedics his symptoms. The officers gave him cardiac meds, did a 4-lead trace (ECG monitoring) and then stated clearly to him that ‘they can guarantee he is not having a heart attack’ before leaving him at home!”
Steve said he reported this using the service’s internal reporting process, to no avail.“I did an IIMS (incident report) and was advised that these paramedic’s had been ‘talked to’”. Transgression believes the paramedics in question are still employed by the service in the Northern beaches region of Sydney.
Transgression took McDowell’s allegations directly to ASNSW. Though, both the location and the year that the alleged misconduct occurred were put forward with our request, the service replied that they were not able to find specific records relating to the incident.
The spokesperson did however highlight this document, which they state demonstrates the organisation’s commitment to the wellbeing of their staff. Claims that a paramedic would leave such an ill patient at home where also met with a great deal of scepticism by service officials.
Tales of incompetence in large organisations may be nothing new. It follows that the more people, the greater odds that there will be some that will err. Alarmingly though, it appears that when such cases are bought to the attention of ASNSW’s management by honourable and decent paramedics, little to nothing is done.
A 2015 NSW Health departmental survey had only 21 percent of paramedics reporting that they believed senior management to be honest and transparent in their dealings.
As another serving paramedic told us, “It’s a bit like the old Catholic Church. Instead of kicking out the rotten apples and reporting any criminality to police, they either ignore them or just shift ‘em to another posting”.
Words by James Fry.
*Not their real name.
*AMI = Acute Myocardial Infarcation – A type of cardiac arrest that is responsible for thousands of deaths annually.