Today’s correspondent tells me that:
The Victorian Government recently announced that it was awarding a contract to a private entity to provide non-emergency call taking services for Victoria Police (the Police Assistance Line “PAL”). I understand that the PAL is to be operated by Serco under the management of Victoria Police.
It is also my understanding that, pursuant to the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority Act 2004, ESTA is obliged to provide all call taking and dispatch services to Victoria’s emergency service organisations, including Victoria Police. I believe this includes non-emergency call taking and dispatch services.
My question is, in the absence of an amendment to the ESTA Act, is a contract between Victoria Police and Serco for the provision of non-emergency call taking services legal?
The functions of ESTA are set out in the Emergency Services Telecommunications
Authority Act 2004 (Vic) s 7. They include (s 7(1)):
(a) to provide or enable and control the provision by others of emergency telecommunications and other communications services;
(b) to promote and develop policies and procedures to improve the standard and provision of emergency telecommunications and other communications services;
(c) to advise the Minister on the administration of this Act and on any other matter referred to the Authority by the Minister;
(d) any other functions that are conferred on the Authority by this or any other Act.
Further, s 7(4) says:
In carrying out its functions under subsection (1), the Authority must recognise the right of emergency services and other related services organisations to—
(a) assess and vary their own operational standards; and
(b) manage their own resources; and
(c) assume direct control of communications in the event of incidents and emergencies.
There could be a debate as to whether ‘emergency telecommunications and other communications services’ should be read as
- ‘emergency (telecommunications and other communications services)’ or
- ‘(emergency telecommunications) and other communications services’.
If it’s read the first way, the word ‘emergency’ qualifies or limits both ‘telecommunication’ and ‘other communication services’. If it’s the second interpretation the word ‘emergency’ only qualifies telecommunications not ‘other communications’.
Either way, ESTA’s functions only relate to emergency telecommunications. By definition the ‘non-emergency call taking service’ (ie non-emergency telecommunications)has to be outside ESTA’s remit. If that was not the case where would you draw line? If ESTA is ‘obliged to provide all call taking … services to Victoria’s emergency service organisations’ no-one could ring a police, ambulance or fire station directly, for any purpose at all.
There are no regulations made under the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority Act 2004 (Vic) that would affect the position, nor does ESTA get a mention in the Victoria Police Act 2013 (Vic).
Allowing police to decide how to handle non-emergency calls would appear to be an example of police managing their own resources ie make the choice on whether they want to use police resources to employ police, hire non-police staff or contract with SERCO to manage the Police Assistance Line. It might also be an example of police assuming ‘direct control of communications in the event of incidents’ that are not emergencies. All of which is contemplated by s 7(4).
Without some explanation as to why my correspondent thinks ‘ESTA is obliged to provide all call taking and dispatch services to Victoria’s emergency service organisations, including … non-emergency call taking and dispatch services’ I can’t see any conflict. ESTA is dealing with emergencies, and non-emergency call taking services are not about emergencies and therefore outside ESTA’s remit.