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How A Volunteer Rescue Team Provides This Capital’s Only Ambulance Service

In a fast-growing city with even faster-moving street traffic, an all-volunteer rescue service is the only game in town.

First responders, sole responders. Photo via Vientiane Rescue Service.

In a city of hundreds of thousands, accidents happen every day. And so do disasters. But for the residents of the Laotian capital Vientiane, when calamities struck, nobody came. That’s because nobody could. Without a first responder network, victims sprawled on the roadside and bodies went unrecovered.

But that was then, and thanks to the volunteers of Vientiane Rescue, this is now.

After a long struggle to build a working operation from a handful of underage volunteers, Vientiane Rescue boasts a grown-up, full-spectrum team of emergency services. Paramedics supply first aid. Hydraulic teams pull survivors from wrecks. Fire and rescue staff brave smoke and flames. And diving and excavation teams tackle rescues in difficult natural environments.

It’s grueling work during a crisis and a grinding wait during downtime. But with Vientiane booming thanks to an influx of foreign investment, public safety has yet to catch up, and the need for emergency rescue is growing. “Large numbers of cars and motorbikes have poured onto the roads in recent years,” notes journalist Holly Robertson, who recently spent two long nights with the crew. “China is the biggest investor in Laos, spending $1 billion in 2016 alone. In Laos, alcohol and speed are factors in about 90 percent of crashes.”

Then there are the psychological demands. Where emergency response standards are unknown, it can be hard for victims to understand how hard the volunteers work.

“Some people are very demanding,” Nitthtamomg Niravanh told Robinson. “We manage to get to the accident sites in three to five minutes, which is a world record. And people complain, but they don’t know what it is to work in these conditions for 24 hours a day for free.” In California, to make just one comparison, responders are required to arrive on scene nine minutes after a call.

Even the spirit of service that makes it all possible doesn’t always resonate. “Working for free is not seen as rewarding. In [other] countries, if you volunteer, people think, ‘Wow.’ But here, people don’t respect it, so we need a very high level of commitment to do our work.”

Still, with every intervention, the tide turns in favor of smarter, safer nightlife. Sebastien Perret, a French paramedic and Vientiane Rescue Service co-founder, puts the point starkly: “We’re not trying to save people’s lives, we’re trying to change their minds. And it’s working.”

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