Privatised emergency services:
by Rohan Gowland Australia's emergency services — fire, ambulance etc — are vital to the health and safety of society and must be in public hands and properly funded by governments. This is being borne out in Victoria where the privatisation of emergency services has created a dangerous and intolerable situation, most recently with the failure of private fire alarm monitoring in Melbourne. Melbourne's firefighters are furious about the privatised fire alarm monitoring system. In around 12 cases there were one-hour delays before the Fire Brigade was notified of alarms being set off and in another 12 cases the alarm signal was completely lost and the Brigade not notified at all. The privatised alarm system, used in buildings throughout Melbourne, failed for three days from Thursday November 4 to Sunday November 7. Hospitals and nursing homes were among the buildings where alarms went off, with the signal being delayed or lost. The alarm in the Alfred Hospital rang for 30 minutes. Staff waited for a fire truck to turn up, but the private company had not passed on the signal to the Fire Brigade. Two nursing homes faced similar and potentially more dangerous situations as did many other premises where fire alarms went off. In the cases where the signal was lost, it was only after the people at the scene realised the Brigade was not coming and subsequently telephoned the Emergency number — so by-passing the fire alarm company — that the Brigade became aware of the emergency. Worst fears The alarm system is run by private company Tyco Fire Monitoring, which was awarded the contract by the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Board in 1997, under the Kennett Government's rabid push for privatisation of government services. "It's our worst fears", Peter Marshall, Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Firefighters' Union of Australia, told The Guardian. "We never had these sort of problems, unforeseen. I've never seen it in my 15 years in the fire brigade." Under the publicly-owned system there was a dedicated hardline (a normal telephone line) that connected alarms directly to the fire station. No third party was involved. Since privatisation, a tangle of private companies deal with the alarm signal before it finally reaches the Fire Brigade. The new system employs mobile phone-type technology that uses a radio signal rather than a hardline. The alarm sends a radio signal to Tyco, the company supplying the alarms. Tyco is supposed to pass on the signal to Intergraph. (Intergraph is a private company that was given the contract for Victoria's emergency services' communications system. Intergraph has been the subject of ongoing investigations over corruption in the granting of the contract by the former Kennett Government.) Intergraph is then supposed to contact the Fire Brigade. "You see how many more factors come into the equation", said Mr Marshall. The Ambulance Service has had well-publicised difficulties in the past with Intergraph causing delays in calls it has received, except in this case it wasn't Intergraph, or any of the private companies listed above. It was due to another private company, a phone company, which is supposed to relay the mobile-phone-type radio signals from Tyco's alarms. However, the private phone company was upgrading its network and did not relay the signals while the upgrading work was taking place. The union is pursuing Federal Court action alleging breaches of the Trades Practices Act and seeking to test if there is any way companies entering into the emergency services area can be held accountable. The union doesn't want Tyco to install any more equipment until all the existing equipment has a dedicated hardline back-up in case the radio signal fails. But Mr Marshall was adamant: "It is clearly not applicable to contract out any part of emergency services, it's just not applicable. "What we saw over those three days is what our worst fears were. That is, when you put emergency services into the hands of private providers, in our view there is a clear conflict of interest. "If it is run by the Government then there is only one overriding factor, and that is service delivery to the community. Other States are going to have to learn from this. Unfortunately, in Victoria, it's already happened. Now we hope there is some political will to rectify that problem." What must the new Victorian Government do? "Put it back into the Government's hands — that's the solution", said Mr Marshall.