Editorial: St John's ills worrying

20:53, Aug 24 2014

All is clearly not well with the Order of St John.

On Saturday, Fairlie St John station manager Darryl Smith, a 14-year volunteer, vented his frustration at the increased workload, at being directed to help out at other stations as far away as Timaru and Twizel, and the impact that was having on his working day.

St John says it would like at least 50 more volunteer staff across its South Canterbury stations. But filling those spots won't be easy when long-time volunteers aren't able to be the ambassadors they should be.

The other side of the St John story is the ever-increasing number of people saying they called for an ambulance that never came - or took a long time to arrive.

We reported in February some cases where ambulances were called, but patients were instead diverted to their GPs - only to be sent from there to hospital anyway. One woman made a formal complaint about her dealings with St John ambulance; she said the reply deflected the onus back to her community, leaving her with increased respect for the frontline staff, and very little for those behind the scenes.

More recently, TV3's Campbell Live programme documented its own experience, when a staff member became unwell. Numerous calls for an ambulance were made over several hours. St John eventually fronted up to say sorry.


The stories kept coming; the mother of a 3-year-old boy told an ambulance was coming, only to receive a phone call instead from a registered nurse. She took her seriously ill son to hospital herself.

St John's website says it treats and transports 400,000 people each year, and about 90 per cent of New Zealand's population is within reach of its service. Or, to put that another way, about 90 per cent of New Zealand's population rely on St John to help them when they're sick or hurt.

St John has contracts with the Ministry of Health, ACC and the DHBs, which fund just under 80 per cent of the service's direct operating costs. The public still expects an ambulance to arrive if they need one. If that's not what those contracts provide for, there needs to be much more awareness around that.

Filling the volunteer gaps is a challenge for the community and St John. If the already stretched volunteer base dwindles further through disillusionment, there surely comes a time when the service itself becomes unsustainable.

How soon then, before the absence of an ambulance - through either lack of crew or triage guidelines - results in a death, rather than a doctor's visit or delay?

The Timaru Herald