Community support is vital

Relying on volunteers to boost services has a long tradition in New Zealand.

Not many weeks go by without organisations either knocking at doors, sending out letters asking for support or volunteers standing at street corners with donation buckets. Kiwis have an inbuilt mechanism encouraging them to get involved in community organisations, be it schools, sports groups or social agencies.

But when St John says it is being forced to run a single-crewed ambulance because some volunteer staff are either unavailable, or have already worked a 14-hour day, the community should take notice.

A memo reveals when a volunteer is unavailable to do an entire nightshift because of working more than 14 hours in a day, a single-crewed ambulance will run from midnight. This means if a patient is met by a single-crewed ambulance, they will have to wait for a second ambulance to arrive before they can be taken to hospital.

St John Coastal Otago area manager Doug Third says single crewing is far from desirable but St John has limited options unless additional paid staff are made available. It is clear from the memo the safety of staff members working by themselves is a concern.

People often align St John staff with the police and Fire Service as they are seen as first responders in many cases. The ambulances are seen beside roadside accidents, at fires and at sporting events. But in fact, without the community support through donations and membership, St John would be a shadow compared to those other services.

Of course, health and safety guidelines are important and the safety of staff must be paramount. For instance, imagine a single-crewed ambulance being called to an incident in the student area of North Dunedin. The officer on duty will not know what they are going to find on arrival.

If heavy drinking has taken place, it is unlikely the officer will escape without some abuse or worse as people in uniform generally attract the wrong sort of attention. The ambulance officer is trying to provide what may be life-saving help in the face of adversity. It takes a strong person to overcome those sorts of barriers.

The police are Government-funded and the Fire Service is funded in various ways, including through insurance levies. When politicians call for more police in the front line, it may be a good time to start thinking about some of the other services which have first responder status. Staffing allocation is under review across the country but it is not known whether Dunedin will get extra staff.

St John wants to stop sending single-crew responses out by 2018. But is that soon enough? How many people will suffer or die as a result of not being transported to hospital at the earliest possible moment.

St John is talking to the Government and is waiting to hear a result. If someone is lying alone in their home waiting for an ambulance, the chances are money and staffing levels are the least of their worries.

St John says it needs millions of dollars in funding and hundreds of new emergency staff or it will stop sending ambulances if they are single-crewed.

Unfortunately, no government is going to provide millions of dollars to any organisation in these circumstances. For decades, the onus to support community organisations, and services like St John, has been shifted to those who use or provide those services.

Increasingly, important services are running low on funds and volunteers as New Zealand becomes a much older society and younger people find themselves working longer and harder to get ahead.

However, what can happen is a community making representations to members of Parliament on behalf of the organisations they support in a financial or voluntary way.

There does seem plenty of money for Government priorities, just not enough to support valuable and life-saving services flying below the radar of government attention.

What cost can be put on a human life?

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