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Lebanon: in the heart of action

27-11-2008 Feature

The Lebanese Red Cross Society plays a crucial role in responding to emergencies in Lebanon. Its capacity to play this role is enhanced by its partnership with the ICRC.

When Yaman Saab headed for work on 11 May 2008, little did he know about the major emergencies that lay ahead for him that day. He is the head of the Lebanese Red Cross Society’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) station in the small village of Kaber Chamoun, overlooking Beirut.

It is true that rival armed followers of Lebanese political parties had been fighting each other for some days, but the fighting was confined to certain neighbourhoods of Beirut. Nobody expected a dramatic spillover of the violence into the hills close to the capital.

Hazmieh, Beirut. Operators in the central operations room at the Lebanese Red Cross Society’s Emergency Medical Services receiving calls for assistance.    

Nevertheless, Saab was prepared in the event of any emergencies. He had placed 45 volunteers on alert and six ambulances on standby. He says, " We started receiving calls for assistance in the early afternoon of that day, a Sunday. Suddenly the area burst into fierce fighting. "

Ambulances could not reach victims in certain spots owing to heavy fire. In some cases the ambulance would go as far as it could to the place where it was needed. The victims would then be carried on foot to the ambulance for evacuation to the nearest hospital.

" We had to back up our services with ambulances from other stations to free up some of our own vehicles for other emergencies, " Saab explained. The Kaber Chamoun station covers a large part of Mount Lebanon, where most of the fighting was concentrated. As the volunteers were answering rescue calls in the upper hills, fierce clashes erupted in the Shoueifat area southeast of Beirut, which is also covered by the Kaber Chamoun station.

" We were flooded with calls, and kept in constant contact with the families of stranded victims caught up in the fighting. They in turn remained in touch with their families, giving them instructions over the phone until the ambulances could reach them, " Saab said, adding, " It was a stressful time. Our ambulances could not get to some victims owing to security risks. "

The bitterness in Saab's voice is palpable as he remembers Lebanese Red Cross volunteers reaching victims " when it was already too late for many of them. We were unabl e to carry out our humanitarian mission to our satisfaction because of security constraints. It was not easy at all, but that is the ugliness of war " .

 New and improved facilities  

The rescue missions carried out by the Kaber Chamoun station and other EMS centres of the Lebanese Red Cross in Mount Lebanon and Beirut are organized and managed from the EMS headquarters in Hazmieh.

In August the central EMS relocated to Hazmieh from the old, cramped building it shared with the Lebanese Red Cross Society’s nursing school in Baabda, another Beirut neighbourhood. " Having our own separate and independent building is a dream come true, " says Georges Kettaneh, head of the EMS department. " Definitely we have more space now and can move about more freely. In the old setup we were crammed inside two rooms and tip-toed around to avoid disrupting other departments, " Kettaneh explained.

Lebanese Red Cross Society volunteers about to set off for a field mission.    

The EMS headquarters now boasts brand new and renovated buildings and upgraded communication equipment, complete with a powerful antenna for effective contact with the field, courtesy of the ICRC. This has made a great difference in the lives of the 15 operators, mostly volunteers, who run the central EMS station round the clock. " The workload is still the same, but the work has become easier and smoother, " noted Rudy Daoud, head of the operations room.

The Hazmieh operations room covers the area with the highest population density. The room is abuzz with phones ringing off the hook, information being transmitted by radio, the sound of a television set roaring in the background and operators fielding calls: " Operations, yes… what type of injury is it? Which area are you calling from? What is your address? "

 Popular support  

Thanks to its performance during the civil war, the Lebanese Red Cross enjoys widespread support. Its nerve centre, the Hazmieh operations room, handles an average of 150 emergency interventions per day in peacetime. The number doubles in emergency situations. Three other main EMS stations in Tibnine, Tripoli and Zahleh cover the Lebanese Red Cross society's operations in south and north Lebanon and in the Bekaa region respectively. 

Explaining the functioning of the " central operations room " , André Harfouche, EMS volunteer for the past 21 years, said that in emergencies related to armed conf licts, " the only information that operators need is to determine where the distress call is coming from and what the security conditions are there. They then alert the nearest EMS station to carry out the evacuation if it is safe for ambulances to do so " . Volunteers will work for up to 36 hours non-stop under emergency situations, as was the case during the war in July 2006.

During peacetime, operators are under less pressure. They are also able to collect more detailed information on cases before the green light is given for intervening. Although the cases that the EMS operators deal with are mostly grim, they do have some stories with happy endings to tell. It is not uncommon for the EMS ambulance service to be requested, especially in remote areas, to rush a woman in labour to hospital. In one such case Lebanese Red Cross volunteers very nearly had to deliver the baby themselves.