BEIRUT: Orange suits flurried by after the siren rang. The team geared up within seconds, yelling orders as one emergency medical technician settled in the call center to take vital information.
Any stranger might mistake the scene as chaotic, but the team has it down to a science. “101, 101, call center,” the voice on the speaker says, indicating there’s an emergency.
Minutes before, the team had sat down to eat dinner. One of the EMTs, Tom, had prepared lentil soup, and they had also ordered burgers and sandwiches from a nearby shop.
However, as the siren rang, they dropped their food and a team consisting of a driver, an EMT and a mission leader left the premises in record time. The other members got up from the table and settled in the living room.
“We wait for the team to come back to continue eating,” a volunteer nicknamed Kate said.
Red Cross volunteers come from all backgrounds, and because names may give away a person’s religious affiliation, team members instead use nicknames based on a character trait or story. The names used in this story have been modified to maintain their neutrality.
One of the rules at the center is the team eats together. No matter what happens or how hungry they are, they all need to sit together and eat breakfast, lunch or dinner.
In this instance, dinner did not resume until 11 p.m., after the team had dealt with two back-to-back cases. But no one complained.
They rejoined the table and ate their food, now cold.
The Red Cross Spears center, dubbed 101, is located near Sanayeh and was established in 1968, making it the first in Lebanon. Fifty years later, there are 46 Red Cross emergency medical service centers across Lebanon providing first aid, emergency services and transportation in special cases.
The shifts run Monday through Friday, beginning at 5 p.m. and ending at 6 a.m. However, every team has a weekend shift assigned to it, which begins Saturday at 4 p.m. and ends Monday at 6 a.m., totaling 38 hours.
“I wish people knew how exhausted we are. You get the feeling that people are waiting for you to make a mistake so they can judge you we’re humans, we’re doing our best,” Jane, a first aid responder, said. “I think people underestimate the level of commitment. We have university, jobs and families. Our life isn’t just the Red Cross, though it’s a huge part of our lives,” chimed in Mia, another first aid responder.
First aid responders wear a white shirt with the Red Cross logo, while EMTs don orange outfits. The former are still in their first year at the Red Cross; after that stint, they must pass an exam to become an EMT. The first aid responders at the center Sunday were doing their first weekend shift.
Although not yet allowed to work in the field, they had full schedules.
“Weekend shifts have three goals,” Megan, a mission leader, told The Daily Star. “We go on emergencies, clean the center and spend time together so the team can bond.”
The members stress team bonding because they believe that it translates to smoother coordination on the ground. Mia said she loved this aspect of the job, as it has helped her develop closeness with her fellow teammates. Part of this involves cleaning their place and doing the dishes together.
“I don’t know what pushed me to join. Everyone asks me that and I never have an answer,” said Josh, another first aid responder.
“I just wanted to help people, regardless of their gender, religion, sex or race,” he added, referring to one of the Red Cross’ seven principles: impartiality. Many gave the same answer: They wanted to help people and challenge themselves.
“I couldn’t handle death and blood so I joined, and now [the fear] is gone,” Chris, an EMT, said.
“I didn’t think I was going to be able to handle the worst cases,” he added, but two years with the Red Cross has erased all self-doubt. “You keep moving forward the Red Cross requires you to push yourself.”
“You get things in the Red Cross that you can’t get anywhere else. You discover things about yourself, what you’re capable of doing,” Jane said.
Dan, also an EMT, relies on his team to recenter himself. “People die that’s life. You can only move forward, never backward. But we stand together [as a team]. The center [and the people] ground us.”
It’s evident that those who volunteer with the Red Cross don’t think of it as just another task on their to-do list. They spend time at the center even if it’s not their shift.
One came to have breakfast, another, dinner. One volunteer, a driver, picked up a shift for a couple of hours so another driver could sleep. It’s hard to keep track of the “original team” because others come to help out in other ways: answering the phone, changing bandages or checking the blood pressure of people who stop by the center.
“Nothing is restricting me to stay here. But here I am,” Dan said, hours after his shift was supposed to end.
There is a sense of camaraderie, even among the first aid responders.
“The [EMTs] are friendly, helpful, and they make you feel comfortable, but it’s still a strict atmosphere no mistakes allowed,” Jane said.
“They pressure you to do better, to be ready,” Mia added.
It’s vital for the team to be friends. They see terrible things, they witness death together and spend almost 40 hours in the same confined space, sweaty and tired.
“It’s exhausting,” Dan said, echoing a recurring theme among the EMTs. “CPR makes you sweaty and sore, but if your patient survives, it’s worth it. It’s the small, good things that outweigh all the bad.”
After completing the first half of their first weekend shift, the first aid responders are willing to get their hands dirty. “I feel ready to go on emergencies. We’ve been given the training, the techniques, even the emotional readiness. All that’s left is the experience,” Josh said.
Mia and Jane echoed the sentiment: Both were eager to start, even if they didn't feel completely up to the task yet. “I may not be 100 percent ready but gradually, with experience, I will be,” Mia said.
Her uncertainty is not unfounded: They may not be doctors, but they are saving lives and doing so without any monetary compensation.
“Many think we work as Red Cross EMTs, but they don’t know it’s voluntary. We come at it because of our humanity,” Chris said.
“People don’t expect that we are educated, have jobs and diplomas.
“They don’t expect that people with diplomas or jobs would volunteer,” Megan said, adding that volunteers are sometimes asked about their education or social background, which they cannot reveal because of the organization’s principle of neutrality.
To ensure the public’s confidence in their work, Red Cross volunteers cannot present themselves as individuals; rather, they represent only the Red Cross.
“You have to stay neutral, give up everything: your family, nationality and religion [when you are wearing the Red Cross outfit]. You only have your humanity,” Dan said.
“I wish people would understand we’re volunteers we don’t get paid. We help everyone,” Josh added. “And our phone number is 140,” he added with a grin.