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The ongoing inquest into the death of Nick Panagiotopoulos in October 2021 has revealed significant delays in emergency call-taking services in Victoria. Triple Zero Victoria’s chief operating officer, Nicole Ashworth, confirmed that funding for 43 extra call-taking workers was only secured in May 2021, well into the COVID-19 pandemic. This lack of urgency in securing necessary funding highlights a failure to anticipate the volume of emergency calls during a crisis. Additionally, Ashworth disclosed that at the time of Panagiotopoulos’ death, the agency had not yet filled all the new positions funded for call-takers due to slow recruitment processes.

Telstra had offered to provide call-taking staff to ESTA in November 2021, but the offer was declined as it was believed to be more efficient to recruit from the general public. Ashworth explained that hiring Telstra staff would have required additional training in ambulance call-taking, which slowed down the process. Despite the ongoing challenges faced by ESTA, Ashworth was not employed by the agency until November 2021, after the call-taking performance had already deteriorated significantly. Key individuals, such as former CEO Marty Smyth and Inspector-General for Emergency Management Tony Pearce, are not listed as witnesses in the inquest.

Cardiologist Associate Professor Nicholas Cox testified last year that a delay in connecting to the ambulance operator was a contributing factor to Panagiotopoulos’ death. He stated that if emergency services had arrived within seven to 10 minutes of the cardiac arrest, the chances of survival would have been high. Ashworth outlined changes made since 2021 to improve emergency call-taking services in Victoria, including a 25% boost to the workforce. While these changes have been implemented to address the current high call volumes, Ashworth acknowledged that responding to a pandemic-like surge of demand in the future may still present challenges.

Despite the improvements made, Ashworth acknowledged that meeting the demands of a similar crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic would be difficult and could not be guaranteed. She expressed gratitude to the frontline call-takers at Triple Zero Victoria and extended condolences to the Panagiotopoulos family. The ongoing inquest has shed light on the challenges faced by emergency call-taking services in Victoria and the need for sufficient funding and efficient recruitment processes to ensure timely responses to emergency calls. The testimony provided by Ashworth and other key figures highlights the importance of addressing systemic issues in emergency response systems to prevent further delays in potentially life-threatening situations.

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