About the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority
The Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) was founded in 2004. It is the critical link between the Victorian community and the state’s emergency services agencies.
ESTA provides Victoria with 24-hour emergency (“000”) call-taking and dispatch services for police, fire, ambulance and VICSES. Call-taking and dispatch services are delivered from three State Emergency Communications Centres (SECCs) located at Ballarat, Burwood East and Williams Landing.
ESTA also provides advanced, operational communications for Victoria’s emergency services. This supports police, fire, ambulance and VICSES personnel in the field.
In 2021–22, ESTA answered more than 2.8 million calls for assistance, representing a call every 11 seconds or more than 7,600 a day.
Stephen Leane joined the board of ESTA at the end of 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. At this time, COVID restrictions were easing and case numbers were growing – as too was the demand for emergency services.
As the demand increased, the organisation began to crumble under the pressure. In late 2021, Graham Ashton was appointed by the Emergency Services Minister to conduct a capability review and the board of ESTA asked whether Stephen would take on the role as interim CEO upon the resignation of the incumbent.
Leading from day one
The task facing Stephen was daunting. Emergency calls to triple zero were not reliably being answered and there was a lack of confidence from partner agencies. Staff were experiencing disenfranchisement with management and were leaking information to the media.
Stephen was required to get up to speed fast. He started by assessing the environment, “picking up the rocks and seeing what was underneath.” Stephen highlighted that this could not be done without understanding a complex and important historical context, including long-held views about how ESTA should run and its history as a private organisation.
At the time, ESTA was funded through its partners (i.e. Ambulance, Police and Fire authorities) to provide a community service on behalf of those agencies, creating a dynamic that Stephen characterised at times as a “master/servant relationship.”
Key to driving change, a strategic position was developed and supported by week-by-week planning, with sufficient agility to allow the shifting of course as needed. A new Deputy CEO, Debra Abbott, was appointed. Stephen and Debra both had extensive experience in government and emergency management which was invaluable in understanding processes and cross-government engagement.
Stephen and Debra developed a draft plan, “ESTA 2.0”, which established clear authorising environments and regular engagements with partner agencies.
The media pressure while they undertook this change remained significant, however leveraging off this extreme focus supported ETSA to build stronger connections with government and ministers to push for reform.
Ultimately, ESTA was supported by partner organisations, departments and government who could help bring ESTA 2.0 to life. Agencies and departments released staff and ESTA used short-term consultants for targeted uplifts such as media management, human resources and IT.
Building a new ESTA
Significant reform typically requires significant funding. Efforts focused on developing a funding bid adequate to build the service of the future rather than patch over the cracks. While funding is essential, so to was timing. Additional, immediate funding was provided so that changes could begin from day one.
As with any workplace change there was a degree of staff turnover, including, over time, the whole executive. New leaders were brought in who had experience in fire rescue, paramedicine and emergency response. Their expertise from outside the organisation complemented the skills and knowledge of existing talent.
Focus on staff wellbeing
Throughout this process, many staff at ESTA were struggling from burn-out. As such, a staff wellbeing piece accompanied the reform via the expansion of the peer support program and employee assistance program.
One common piece of feedback was that ESTA staff felt their employment conditions were lacking compared to other emergency services. Working with the union, a Memorandum of Understanding (and two successive MOUs) were developed to improve those conditions.
Receiving funding quickly, recruiting key staff, easing workloads and improving the working conditions began to ease the pressure on staff.
Embedding change and succession planning
The work ESTA leadership were doing at this time shows the importance of managing short, medium and long-term priorities concurrently. Organisations need to grow and shift, and change cannot be achieved at once. With support and direction, ESTA refocused and considered the skills and talent within existing staff, to build a career pathway that will serve the organisation for years to come.
With four years of funding, a new executive team and a suite of recommendations from the ESTA Capability and Service Review, a direction for the organisation was established. Its title will soon reflect its status as an emergency service – Triple Zero Victoria.
Stephen and Debra’s approach to leadership and transformation offers valuable insights for other organisations looking to effect meaningful change while maintaining continuity and keeping service to community operating day-to-day.
Postscript. In the 2023-24 Victorian Budget the government announced further significant investment in ESTA to replace its computer aided dispatch system. On Monday 29 May 2023, Debra Abbott took over as CEO on Stephen’s departure.