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Thunderstorm asthma; the Ambulance Victoria response.

Paul Holman, State Health Commander, Ambulance Victoria

Hello, my name is Paul Holman and I'm the State Health Commander of Ambulance Victoria. What I'd like to talk to you about today, is our experience on the 21st of November, when we had an unprecedented demand on Ambulance and the health system, due to what now is known as Thunderstorm Asthma.

Between 6pm and 11pm that night, we received more than 1900 calls - a six-fold increase in the number that would normally call 000. The thing about these calls, they were all coming in, all across Melbourne, all in a wide area and all were now complaining of respiratory problems. The major issue for us, in terms of these problems, were actual fact were life-threatening. If I can put it in context, the same way perhaps a fire service would get 1900 calls for house fires or the police would get 1900 calls for bank robbery over the same period of time. So, it was an extreme, unprecedented impact on our organisation. I had about 140 ambulances when the event started and, over the period of time, we escalated up. We recalled nearly 100 staff with an extra 60-70 resources out in the field, responding. We had emergency medical field officers responding, we used the Metropolitan Fire Brigade to respond in an EMR capacity and also Victoria Police, for checking on welfare right across the system.

Tragically, we saw 9 people die in that period of time and lose their lives but hundreds more were saved and hundreds more were taken care of by the health system as a whole.

What do we do when we have these events? Well, a disaster is a disaster when things go wrong. What we do, is we learn from these events. We learn what we can do and how we can do it better. We had no plans for an event of this nature. We haven't ever envisaged it and I don't think anyone right across the world had envisaged something quite as dramatic and quite as high impact as something like this. So, what we've done now, is that we've reviewed all of our operations, particularly call taking and messaging to the community and how we respond. As a result of this, and we supplied this information to the Inspector General, we have 32 major recommendations to be prepared so, if we have an event of this nature next time, 1 is we can get some early warning and 2 is we can escalate early, particularly along the lines of 000 calls when the demand outstrips our resources to be able to respond, it's about what kind of information we can give you as members of our community, what kind of information we can make sure that we can advise you what to do in those circumstances. That's certainly one of the major findings from this. Hopefully, we never have to have this sort of impact again but I can assure our community, if we do, we will be prepared. The same way as in the past, we had heat waves, where people actually didn't see the impact. Back in 2009, we had 374 people in 3 days lose their lives due to heat. We're now prepared for that. We react to that and we've learnt from this and we'll react to this as well.

So, as members of the community, you can be assured that your Ambulance Service learns from these events and we make sure that, if we have another unfortunate event like this, we'll be there for you.