Undercover Heroes

November 25, 2010 in General

In the event of a national emergency, rescue workers seem to fall from the sky to provide services of fire control and salvaging casualties. The men who do this vital job put in many hours of training and dedicate their lives to this all-important service. Ivan Barbara, Martin Aquilina and Sandro Camilleri talk to Rachel Zammit Cutajar about their lives in the Emergency Fire and Rescue Unit.

Ivan Barbara, Martin Aquilina and Sandro Camilleri are but three of a group of 35 volunteers dedicated to saving lives whenever disaster strikes. The Emergency Fire and Rescue Unit (EFRU) is an NGO dedicated to assisting the Civil Protection Department in cases of national emergency.

They also offer their services, against a donation, to any establishment organising an event of mass gathering including concerts, sporting activities and the like. Prior to the event they provide an assessment of the area, supplying recommendations for fire prevention and to ensure safety of the crowds. They also provide first aid services on the day of the event, when necessary.

EFRU also aid other non-profit organisations sustaining their activities free of charge. They provide free fire prevention awareness and other trainingtoensuresafetyat the event.

They are also active in fund-raising events for other charities. The EFRU cycle for charity event has been organised for the past three years to support a number of different charities including Puttinu Cares – a charity for terminally ill children – Inspire and the Hospice Movement.

All three of the volunteers come from voluntary backgrounds. Each spent a happy childhood as part of The Scouts Association.

“We loved the adventure of being part of the Scouts. As we grew older however there is very little you can do if you remain part of the association, aside from look after the young Scouts. So from there we moved to a more socially responsible role and spent 15 years with a rescue organisation.

“Following a change in management and various shortcomings we could notaccept,five founding members set up the Emergency Fire and Rescue Unit (EFRU) in June 2006.”

From there they embarked on their first project – a television series by Paul Target productions called Venture 6. In this 10 programme series a group of young models were taught the various skills it takes to be a rescue volunteer. Abseiling, scuba diving, trekking, camping and various other adventure sports were embarked upon and the models were coached on techniques required to deal with those situations.

“Following the programme we immediately began recruiting volunteers and began training. We have now developed into a group of 35 members who meet every Saturday to spend the afternoon training in casualty handling, using stretchers, ladders and ropes to retrieve potential casualties from precarious locations.”

Barbara and Camilleri attended a training course at the Katostofenschtzschule Des Budes in Germany in 1996 where they learnt a lot of the expertise required not only to take part in rescue operations but also to train others in these skills.

In the event of a national emergency the Civil Protection Department are immediately called to the scene. Following an assessment of the situation they will call on EFRU to provide assistance and support.

“We all have full time jobs ranging from government workers to professionals, but somehow we always manage a good response of, at best, 20 minutes from the request for aid and at worst within the hour.

“We were involved with the floods of 25 October helping to evacuate people from cars, pulling cars out of the way where tow trucks were unable to get in to clear main traffic arteries and helping people whose houses were flooded.

“We also responded to the fireworks factory explosions in Mosta and Qormi earlier this year.”

Though being part of this organisation requires much hard work and dedication with almost no reward, these volunteers are happy to put the hard work in.

“The feeling of saving a life is not something that can be measured. We don’t work for monetary reward, or for medals on our chest. 15 years of work is worth saving even just one life. When there is the opportunity to save more the job becomes even more rewarding.”

They proudly recall one event where they saved the lives of four canoeists, who capsized in rough seas and were drifting out to sea.

They were the only rescue organisation patrolling the area as others deemed the sea too rough to patrol at force 8. They were able to get to the canoeists in time and handed them over to the AFM patrol boat after they alerted them of the situation. Though the AFM were credited for their rescue they know that the canoeists were only saved because of their dedication and hard work and that feeling is not something that can be topped.

Though EFRU has been successful over its four short years there is still plenty of hard work in the future. As with all NGOs money is always an issue. Not only are the members of EFRU voluntary sacrificing their time to keep the nation safe, but they also pay for uniforms and personalised equipment – like helmets, boots, gloves, harnesses etc – out of their own pocket. Costs run from between €100 to €130 per uniform.

“Aside from the personal safety equipment ERFU has to have rescue equipment of its own. Hardware, ropes, stretchers, ladders… these all have to be kept in stock at our premises.”

They show me into a room of safety equipment and talk about the importance of correct storage to preserve the equipment they have. Even things as simple as ropes have to be stored well and aired regularly to extend their life – which is months rather than years – their costs close to €100 for a relatively short piece.

“The vehicles we use for rescue are generally privately owned by our volunteers and have been commandeered for our cause. As they are equipped for rescue operations they aren’t the sort of vehicles you could use everyday.

“We even have to pay full tax rates on our ambulances where other rescue organisations get tax free registration.

“The Civil Protection department provides as much help as they can, providing us with old kits and other equipment – we don’t require the best quality kits as we aren’t the ones who will actually go into the emergency area but provide outside support.

However, like everyone else, they have their own limitations.”

We joke about the requirement of having a good pole for the fire fighters to slide down in the event of an emergency, however the reality of decent premises is a pressing issue.

“We are currently working without permanent headquarters. The space we have been allocated is a shop in San Gwann that will be taken away from us the moment it is rented. We have applied for premises through the Lands Department but have not only found that doors are closed but they are slammed!

“We have been promised a number of locations only to find that they are later allocated elsewhere. Since we have applied for land, football clubs, a homing pigeon club and some other leisure clubs have been allocated areas whereas we seem to be refused at every step. It seems a little like a case of two weights and two measures.”

Despite the various obstacles these men talk of the future of EFRU in a positive light.

“Subject to acquiring some decent premises we plan to have a centre that can accommodate foreign rescue units – including accommodation – so that we can expand our protocol and embark on networking exercises. We have completed training in Calabria where we are attempting to regularise our training so that in the future we may call upon our Italian friends in the event of a Maltese emergency as they may call upon us in Italian emergencies.

“We are hoping to continue to provide training for our volunteers both in Malta and abroad to broaden the experiences of our rescue workers which will allow them to deal with as many different rescue scenarios as possible so that we can provide a better service.”

By Rachel Zammit Cutajar