Emergency ward monitoring in $15m package for next storm asthma crisis

Victoria’s emergency control centre will soon be monitoring hospital emergency departments in real time following last year’s freak thunderstorm asthma crisis that saw thousands of people suddenly require urgent respiratory care and claimed the lives of nine people.

Health Minister Jill Hennessy has revealed the new monitoring system, calling it a “canary in the coalmine” to detect surges at emergency departments.

The new system is part of a $15.56 million package to ensure the state is better equipped to handle large-scale health crises, which will be included in next week’s budget.

It comes as Tony Pearce, the Inspector-General for Emergency Services, releases his final report on the crisis that unfolded across the state on November 21 and 22 last year.

Nearly 10,000 people presented at emergency departments in Melbourne and Geelong over the two days, the report states.

Grieving families have been critical of emergency services for not advising them of long waits for ambulances and to drive to hospital instead.

The family of 20-year-old law student Hope Carnevali, who died while waiting for paramedics, have called for real-time information about ambulance delays to be available during emergencies.

“The standard response can’t just be, ‘an ambulance has been dispatched.’ What is that? Five minutes or 40 minutes? That’s the situation we found ourselves in ??? knowing that things could have been different,” Hope’s aunt, Melissa Carnevali, told Fairfax Media in January.

Hope died on her front lawn while family members waited 30 minutes for an ambulance.

The ambulance service’s response to the crisis is the subject of a separate probe being undertaken by Tim Cartwright, a former acting chief commissioner of Victoria Police.

Mr Pearce’s report backed his interim report that found emergency services faced with an unprecedented health crisis they could not have understood had moved swiftly to curb the fallout, however, limited communications hampered the spread of information and emergency response plans were not fully activated.

Ambulance Victoria had received the biggest number of requests for assistance within the shortest timeframe in the state’s history.

There were 201 triple-0 calls in 15 minutes, that’s one every 4.5 seconds. The worst-affected suburbs were Hoppers Crossing, Sunshine West, St Albans, Craigieburn and Reservoir.

Mr Pearce has said more lives could have been lost had it not been for the response of the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority, Ambulance Victoria, the Health Department and hospitals.

The state government accepted all of 16 recommendations on the back of his final report, some of which are already in the process of being implemented.

These include a new Health Emergency Response system, the real time digital dashboard for emergency departments, emergency management training for health sector staff, and a rapid thunderstorm asthma forecasting and warnings system.

“I want to assure the families affected by this event that we have made every effort to learn from this tragedy and to do whatever we can to better respond in the future,” Ms Hennessy said.

Opposition health spokeswoman Mary Wooldridge said the government had failed to show leadership during the crisis and criticised the report for not reviewing the actions of the health minister as the crisis unfolded.

“This report fails to review what the minister knew, when she knew it and what action she took,” Ms Wooldridge said.

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