The Guardian November 17, 1999


Privatised emergency services:
Be alarmed!

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.

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