Emergency services warn Omicron will make staff shortages worse

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 24 January 2022

Emergency crews are warning their services are going to take a hit in the Omicron outbreak, with already strained staff facing another massive challenge. 

St John Ambulance generic

Photo: St John

Thousands of people are likely to be isolating as the virus moves through the community, with frontline responders among those most exposed.

The police union wants officers taken off MIQ duties to manage the load, while ambulance and fire crews say existing staff shortages are about to get a whole lot worse.

Demand for ambulance services is already at an all-time high, with St John reporting unprecedented 111 calls and responses.

Now, St John deputy chief executive of ambulance operations Dan Ohs said their teams are preparing for the anticipated Omicron outbreak by redeploying staff to manage the load.

"St John is working on filling ambulance shifts with qualified ambulance officers who are currently working in other roles, to ensure we can crew our existing emergency vehicles and deploy additional frontline ambulances."

He said customer service teams will also get a boost and they are looking at delivering additional ambulance training programmes to increase the number of new recruits to be qualified to work on the frontline.

"If we experience extreme demand, we may bring on ambulance assistants who have been trained to drive an ambulance, safely lift patients, and perform effective CPR, and partner them with a qualified ambulance officer to provide additional support," he said.

Ohs said ambulance officers are changing their PPE between patients, which means callouts are taking longer to complete - while there are also vacancies that need to be filled.

St John has faced lengthy delays in responding to callouts in recent weeks, with two people dying before an ambulance made it to them.

First Union ambulance coordinator Faye McCann said St John is already struggling with staffing and fears the changes for Omicron are too little, too late.

She said they are having to weigh up the risk of having someone who is unqualified attending a job, versus having no one there.

"Ultimately there's not going to be enough ambulances and you can call the ambulance for a life-threatening emergency - which is of course what you should be doing - it's just really unfortunate that there may be quite some time to respond, and I assume that those lower acuity cases won't have an ambulance," she said.

Ambulance crews are not the only ones burnt out - Auckland secretary for the Professional Firefighters Union and Mt Wellington senior station officer Martin Campbell said fire crews are also under the pump.

"Our staffing levels at the moment, we're in crisis situation. Not only here in Auckland but right throughout the whole country," he said.

In a statement, Fire and Emergency (FENZ) said it had been planning for Omicron being more prevalent in the community and it has confidence in those contingency plans.

"Examples of our contingency plans include support from neighbouring brigades, relocation of resources, recruitment, and a range of other tools."

But Campbell said he is worried, as staffing shortages meant 11 fire stations in Tāmaki Makaurau were closed on Saturday.

"We are already having to close fire stations down now - we are often riding trucks short-staffed, so only three firefighters on the truck instead of the safe number which is four.

"Obviously if Omicron comes in and firefighters are having to stand down... that will only impact our ability to deliver a safe service to communities even more."

FENZ said Saturday's closures did not affect the overall ability to respond to Auckland incidents.

In addition to fire and ambulance crews, police are also feeling the pressure.

Police Association president Chris Cahill said rosters are being changed to cover people being affected and infected - but shortages are inevitable.

He said they expect hundreds will be taken out of action but hope it will not be thousands. He wants to see those numbers boosted by removing officers from managed isolation facilities.

"I think there's about 300 staff that are in MIQ and maybe more personnel from Defence could be deployed there to release police onto the street if necessary," he said.