“I never thought I would deliberately drive into a live fire zone.
This was East Timor and just about a week before what has colloquially been called the “First Dili Riots”. There had been many Dili riots before 2002 but this was the first one since the fledging nation’s independence a few months earlier.
But a bit of context. This was 2002 and I had been contracted by the Australian Aid Agency to develop and implement East Timor’s first domestic ambulance service. I had already established the organisational infrastructure, developed and provided the training systems and established management and communication processes. The Service had been in full operation for about 3 months. It was like a toddler, stumbling a couple of times but doing really well.
At this particular time, we were about two and a half hours east of Dili, just approaching the city of Baucau. I was travelling with my interpreter (Maria) and my counterpart, Jose (the National Ambulance Coordinator) on a planned tour of the regional ambulance crews in the east of the country. Suddenly, the ambulance radio became alive with chatter in Tetum, the Timorese language. Through my translator, I was told Baucau was under siege and that the Baucau ambulance crew were racing toward Dili with two police who had been shot. (Baucau Hospital refused to accept the shooting victims and had closed their doors).
The injured police were unlikely to survive the ambulance journey to Dili.
At this time, the United Nations had a large presence in East Timor. I negotiated with the UN’s Senior Medical Director and they agreed to do an aerial evacuation of the police but only if we could find a place for the helicopters to land. The Timorese ambulance staff knew exactly where to go- the Baucau Sports Stadium. In the middle of the fighting.
So we sped into the sound of gunshots and rioting.
Anyone involved in health care knows that “D”- Danger comes first. Look after yourself. Remove or mitigate any danger to yourself, the patient and bystanders. So why did we drive into the fighting?
There was a significant risk/ benefit analysis that needed to take place, and I cannot ignore the political situation that also motivated the decision. Timor was relatively unstable and if the two police officers had died, it may have been a catalyst for an upheaval significantly worse, and more deadly, than the subsequent Dili riots. Had the ambulance continued to transport the police to Dili, the new ambulance service would have had an element of causation aimed at it on a cultural level.
But the main reason? It was the right thing to do. By taking the police back into Baucau for aerial evacuation meant they had a chance at survival. A chance they would not have otherwise had. We also took precautions. We planned our entry into the town to avoid the worst conflict areas. The Baucau Police rallied around our actions and escorted us to the Sports Arena and protected us while we were there.
This experience reinforces a number of things for me as an emergency leader and manager. While you may have to take risks, you do not have to be reckless in your risk taking. Engage with colleagues to plan actions- especially if they know the environment or situation better than you. Work with other relevant groups to help achieve a shared goal.
And, when the dust has settled and the debrief is taking place, remember to thank the people who worked collaboratively toward the outcome. Ideally, the outcome will be a positive one, but that may not always be the case.”
Craig Hooper is a health and emergency service management consultant specialising in prehospital and emergency operations. He has more than 25 years’ experience in operational management, emergency planning and service implementation in more than 10 countries.
Craig has provided specialist advice and solutions to federal and state governments, major peak industry bodies, NGO/NFP organisations, emergency medical services, ambulance services, hospitals and medical centres, as well as commercial interests, throughout the Asia- Pacific region.
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