- In 2007, a small team of volunteers in the Foundation for Assisting Poor People of Lao PDR used a donated ambulance to create “Rescue Vientiane Capital” to provide first-aid service on the city’s roads, but only on weekends.
- Driven by pure humanitarianism, the VIENTIANE RESCUE volunteers (students and mostly poor Laotians) worked 20 to 168 hours a week out of the house of one volunteer and later a rented bungalow; the volunteers slept in shifts when they were not sleeping on roadsides, often subsisting on nothing but instant noodles, and sometimes unable to respond to calls for help because their ambulance had ran out of petrol.
- As a purely voluntary and homegrown effort, VIENTIANE RESCUE is distinctly inspiring in the selfless dedication of the Laotian youth who have made its work possible despite the odds.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “its heroic work in saving Laotian lives in a time and place of great need, under the most deprived of circumstances, inspiring by their passionate humanitarianism a similar generosity of spirit in many others.”
Laos is slowly coming into its own after decades of war and political instability but governance systems remain fragile and public services woefully inadequate. New prosperity has fueled a tremendous increase in motorized vehicles in the capital city of Vientiane, with its population of 800,000. But the lack of road safety education, strict licensing requirements, traffic rules and their enforcement, and traffic management aids has resulted in a veritable anarchy of cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and tuktuks (motorized tricycles). Compounded by the absence of emergency rescue services, the road fatality rate in Laos is one of the worst in Asia. Thus the Asian Development Bank has cited road use management as a priority need that Laos must address.
In 2007, a small team of volunteers in the Foundation for Assisting Poor People of Lao PDR used a donated ambulance to create “Rescue Vientiane Capital” to provide first-aid service on the city’s roads, but only on weekends. In 2010, Sebastien Perret, a Frenchman living in Laos and a trained paramedic and firefighter, aghast at how victims are left to die because of the utter lack of emergency assistance, joined the foundation as a volunteer. Shortly thereafter, Perret, Laotian Phaichi Konepathoum, and five 15-year-old volunteers, created “VIENTIANE RESCUE” (VR) to operate a free ambulance service on a 24/7 basis, despite the absence of equipment, sponsors, and formal training.
Driven by pure humanitarianism, the VIENTIANE RESCUE volunteers (students and mostly poor Laotians) worked 20 to 168 hours a week out of the house of one volunteer and later a rented bungalow; the volunteers slept in shifts when they were not sleeping on roadsides, often subsisting on nothing but instant noodles, and sometimes unable to respond to calls for help because their ambulance had ran out of petrol. Supported by small private donations and the volunteers’ own pocket money, the first years were extremely difficult. The volunteers had little equipment and few medicines; they would remove and wash bloodied bandages and their only cervical collar once the victim was already in the hospital so these could be reused for the next accident call. At one point they even lost their only ambulance.
By dint of sheer perseverance and the passion to help, the ragtag group of volunteers improved and professionalized its services, acquired more equipment, and expanded the range of its work. Perret produced a basic first aid manual and accessed expert paramedic training for volunteers with the help of Thai partners. Gradually, the group’s heroic work attracted more volunteers and some assistance from local and foreign donors.
Today, VIENTIANE RESCUE Team has a one-truck firefighting unit; a one-boat scuba rescue team, the country’s first; a minivan converted into the country’s first EMS (Emergency Medical Service) ambulance; seven other ambulances; and three more base stations, two made from shipping containers. Its uniformed volunteers now number 200, working a free 24-hour hotline that responds to 15-30 accidents a day. In 2015 alone, Vientiane Rescue responded to 5,760 road accidents, and between 2011 and 2015 the group has helped save as many as ten thousand lives.
As a purely voluntary and homegrown effort, VIENTIANE RESCUE is distinctly inspiring in the selfless dedication of the Laotian youth who have made its work possible despite the odds. Of them, Perret says: “They’re the best people I’ve met in my life … so often they risk their lives to save people they don’t even know.” And he adds: “We do not make miracles every day, but sometimes we do and that’s amazing.”
In electing VIENTIANE RESCUE to receive the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes its heroic work in saving Laotian lives in a time and place of great need, under the most deprived of circumstances, inspiring by their passionate humanitarianism a similar generosity of spirit in many others.
(The response was delivered by Vientiane Rescue Co-founder, Sebastien Perret.)
Today is a strange day. It’s quite hard for us to believe that all of this is real. When we started this service 6 years ago, we had absolutely no expectations, and not a clue about what the future could be. Not because we were pessimistic, but because building an ambulance service from scratch meant investing millions of dollars, highly qualified professionals and equipment. We were 3 adults and 4-5 kids. It sounded unrealistic for us to have other expectations than being just a small first aid team, and do what we could to take care of those dying on the roadside.
At first we heard pessimistic feedbacks from international NGOs, institutions, international organizations and companies we contacted to try to get some support. I’ll always remember an insurance company asking me “What’s your business plan for the next 5 years?”. We also heard: “This is a nice but insane idea”. “Good luck, such a project in such a country is impossible”. But the most common question we had to hear was probably “Who are you?”. “Who are you to think that you could succeed where bigger fish failed?”.
One large government organization actually tried to set up a pre-hospital emergency response ambulance service a few years ago, with a local hospital, invested a lot of money and hired many expensive consultants from abroad. At the end, the project was a failure. So how could a handful of youngsters succeed where a wealthy international organization failed?
At the end, the only thing that helped us to believe in this project was a common idea: we were sure that this was the right thing to do. No matter the hardships, no matter the time it would take. We thought that we had to try. That was the most important. To try.
Today, we haven’t changed. What has changed is that now people do believe in our capacity to move forward, and listen to us. Today, if we’ve achieved so much, it is still unbelievable for us. Not just only about the quality of the training we get, not just about all the new services we provide and equipment we buy to be able to face any kind of emergency situations. It’s not just about figures on a sheet of paper. Not about statistics. It’s way more than this. It’s about the way we do it. The way we care for the victims of the road.
With love. Love and compassion, when our volunteers do their best to alleviate the suffering of victims and their families.
With respect. Respect because we treat people with the same humanity without any discrimination based on ethnic origin, sex, language, wealth or religion.
With generosity. If in today’s world, generosity can be define by “Give and take”, our volunteers give in an old fashion way. They give their time, their energy, their skills and sometimes even their own money to sustain our service. Some of our volunteers are on stand by 24 hours a day for weeks, taking only one day off per month to go back to their families. This means more than 700 hours a month on stand by. Do you know any other place on earth where you have volunteers giving the way OUR volunteers give, for people they don’t even know?
And passion. An amazing passion that we have, each and every one of us, deep in our hearts. A passion that keep our volunteers on stand by day and night while they have to work besides to earn a living, no matter their tiredness. A passion that binds us together when we witness road crash victims dying in our hands due to the violence of the accident crashes in Vientiane and despite our efforts to resuscitate them. A passion that help us stick together when one of our volunteer is killed by a reckless driver on Vientiane roads, like it happened last December. A passion that transforms people around us. A passion that we are spreading around the world through international TV and newspapers coming to witness the work of our amazing volunteers.
While we’ve been working on this Rescue service for 6 years now, our volunteers are the last people on earth to realize exactly what we’ve achieved.
So, we would like to thank the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation and its board of trustees today, to give our volunteers the opportunity to be proud of themselves.