Desperate triple-zero calls unanswered as a life ticked away
By Nick McKenzie
Nick Panagiotopoulos and his wife Belinda.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Five seconds is how long Victoria’s triple-zero service is meant to take to answer a call in 90 per cent of emergency cases. But Nick Panagiotopoulos isn’t counting as he punches three zeros into his phone and presses it to his ear at 12.34pm on Saturday, October 16. He’s sweaty and light-headed and his chest is hurting.
Six seconds. Seven seconds. Eight. Nine. 10. It’s now 10 seconds.
The 47-year-old Preston father of three young girls feels his chest tightening, like it’s stuck in a vice. He’s gripped by pain and panic.
Perhaps he’s thinking about his daughters and his wife, Bel, and waiting to hear the voice of the dispatcher.
A Telstra operator is trying to patch him through to the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA), which will dispatch an ambulance, but something isn’t working. No one at ESTA is picking up, not for Nick and not for his daughters, who will soon start calling, too. One of the two girls at home with Nick is screaming now.
That’s the time 90 per cent of all non-emergency calls are meant to be taken by ESTA. But this is an emergency. And it’s meant to be five seconds. And no one is there.
Nick is surrounded by almost everything he loves, save Bel and his eldest daughter, aged 14. They aren’t far away, just around the corner, having picked up the meat and fish for the barbecue that night.
Nick Panagiotopoulos, who died in October while waiting for an ambulance as ESTA delays prevented his call from getting through.
He has already called Bel and told her he’s not feeling right, and she’s racing home. He met Bel – dark haired, fiery, beautiful, strong – when they were both 16 and he pinched some of her UDL cans.
Two minutes. The phone is still not being patched through to ESTA, because no one there is picking up. He will give it another minute or so and try to call triple zero again.
The crying and screaming is getting louder, but for Nick it’s getting softer. One of the girls is getting help and now the neighbours are dialling too. The girls at home are 11 and nine. Still no one is getting through.
Nick should have been at work at the construction firm his father founded where he grew up around the corner in Reservoir. Instead, he stayed home to help a neighbour with a small concreting job.
Still no connection. He hangs up and punches in the numbers again: Zero. Zero. Zero.
His work was mostly large freeway and road construction jobs, supporting infrastructure for the major roads the state government likes to talk about. The Premier rarely talks about ESTA, which is responsible for connecting Victorians to police, fire and ambulance.
Five days later, on October 21, the chief executive of ESTA, Marty Smyth, will quietly resign and a former police commissioner, Graham Ashton, will begin reviewing growing claims the service is failing.
There are the previous newspaper articles, too, but Nick has never read them. They detail complaints from the ambulance union about chronic under-resourcing and pleas from the families of the dead about similar triple-zero delays in the months and weeks before Nick collapses in front of his daughters.
He is unaware of the urgent October 8 letter from federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to Victorian Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes detailing how, time and time again, Telstra staff have been unable to patch through triple-zero calls because ESTA is failing to pick them up.
Five minutes. Six minutes. Nick hangs up and redials.
It’s just over 30 years since Nick met Bel. There have been family trips to Greece and Hawaii, car rides to the girls’ basketball and gymnastics, pumping old-school hip-hop. There is Jeff Buckley, the Stones, Beyonce – Bel’s and his favourites. Just a few metres away are the kitchen bench and the family photos on the fridge.
Eight minutes. It’s meant to be five seconds.
Bel doesn’t take nonsense from anyone, which is why she will later demand meetings with ESTA bosses and deal with the interim chief executive, former senior police officer Stephen Leane, and ask about the seconds mentioned in the annual report and how in her lounge room it was minutes, and why the gap between promise and reality was so large.
Ten minutes. Eleven minutes. Twelve minutes.
Bel is in the lounge room now. She’s on her hands and knees, trying to keep Nick alive. Her girls are asking her — they are screaming at her – “Where is the ambulance? We have been waiting for so long.”
Bel is begging Nick to stay. She thinks she hears him whisper to her: “I love you, babe.”
A neighbour bolts in and confirms Nick is still breathing. He joins the girls in pleading for an ambulance to be dispatched, but the calls to ESTA still aren’t getting through.
Later, in November, senior ESTA staff promise answers, but when Bel pushes them, they deflect. The pandemic is mostly blamed, but the pandemic by now is almost two years old.
Belinda, Nick Panagiotopoulos’ wife.Credit:Justin McManus
“I have had a meeting with the State Coroner, where I raised my concerns regarding a range of issues,” Leane explains in an email to Bel on December 1. “I feel I cannot respond to your questions around staffing and other matters at ESTA immediately as now these matters will form part of broader evidence provided to the State Coroner and IGEM [Inspector General Emergency Management].
“You will have the opportunity to ask the State Coroner for a copy of all information provided to him and if he holds an open hearing be able to attend that hearing, be represented and be heard.”
Bel knows that a coronial inquest can take years, and fears there are other Victorians at risk now because of a failing system. When The Age later asks ESTA about Bel’s concerns, Leane, a thoroughly decent man who government insiders say has been lumped with a broken agency after the former chief executive left, offers his deep condolences. But again he cites ongoing inquiries to explain why he can’t respond in detail.
By some indicators, though, Leane knows well that ESTA needs help. Triple-zero ambulance calls have grown to an average of 3000 a day, up from the August daily average of 2400. As complaints about unanswered calls mount, 43 additional ESTA staff are being hired and trained, and Leane is in regular touch with his former boss, Ashton, as he inquires into whether ESTA needs a major overhaul.
Bel’s man is slipping away.
She later promises that Nick’s life won’t be reduced to those minutes, a short eternity of terror for her daughters and her.
Nick loved COVID-19 lockdowns, one of the few Victorians who did. It meant more time with the girls, and more time to take Bel for walks, and to take sneaky drives past the dream home he was building with city views and a roof garden.
At the funeral in Edinburgh Gardens 10 days later, the sun is out and Nick’s friends mostly go to pieces as they talk about the tough and loyal bloke they loved.
It’s the girls who are the strongest of the speakers. Dad is still with them, his laughs, and smells, and his gentle teasing of each of them when the others aren’t listening: “You know, I love you the most.”
Nick and Bel’s daughters, 14, 11 and 9, who do not want to be identified.
Bel wears a white T-shirt, sleeves rolled up, and light blue jeans. The sun is shining even harder now.
That’s when one of the many triple-zero calls placed by a dying man, and his wife and his children and the neighbours, finally gets through to ESTA.
They ask for an ambulance. A neighbour pumps Nick’s chest and Bel is helping give mouth-to-mouth, but he’s stopped breathing. Another neighbour who is a nurse takes over.
Ten or so minutes later, at 12.58pm – about 25 minutes after Nick Panagiotopoulos first dialled 000 – an ambulance arrives. The paramedics work on him for another 40 minutes, but he is gone.
When Bel later checks voicemail on Nick’s mobile, she retrieves a message left at the same time the ambulance arrived: 12.58pm.
“We just had a missed call,” it says. “If you get this and need an ambulance, give us a call on 000.”
If you have experienced a delay when making a triple-zero call, please email [email protected]
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