A day in the life of a ‘first responder’

By Vashni Benjamin

When disaster strikes and tragedy occurs, there are a few among us who work tirelessly to ensure order is restored among the chaos. As people were left confused and dazed after the multiple bomb blasts on Easter Sunday, it was first responders who jumped into action and, as their name indicates, were the first to respond to the cries of help that morning.

‘First responder’ is a term used to identify a person specialised in dealing with emergencies, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks. They are often the first people to arrive at the scene and assist in controlling the situation and dealing with casualties.

First responders include the Police, tri-forces, fire brigade, paramedics, and rescuers.

Many of us at home could only stare in horror at our televisions as death tolls climbed every hour. Anyone in the vicinity of the blast was sure to have heard siren after siren of ambulances zooming back and forth trying to save as many lives as possible. In the aftermath of such a tragedy, we are only left to imagine what could have been if not for the unsung heroes of our Emergency Medical Services (EMS) who had to keep a cool head throughout the day, most of whom gave up their day of rest to be of service to the country.

No day is a normal day

“No day is a normal day when you’re an emergency medical technician (EMT),” said Gayan Chaturanga. Chathurange, who has been in the field for about 12 years, currently serves as part of the 1990 Suwa Seriya team.

“For an EMT every single day is a challenging day. We never know who our next caller may be. It’s always different people, every situation is different, and every case is a new challenge.”

Unlike working in a hospital, EMTs do not have the luxury of being in a secure situation, where they know who they’re working with, the exact condition of the patient, or of the fancy equipment necessary to stabilise the situation.

As Chathuranga told us, most often, they have little indication of what the patient’s situation is until they arrive at the scene of emergency. Outside the security of the hospital walls, the site of the emergency is bound to change, making focusing on saving the patient that much harder. In cases of emergencies like the recent terrorist attacks, security is also a concern. Nevertheless, EMTs brave through it all to ensure every life possible is saved.

Being prepared for the worst

As an EMT, uncertainty is part of the job. “As an EMT, it is our duty to do anything we can to save lives. We possess a certain number of skills after we are trained and we have to learn to use them depending on the time, situation, and location.

“But the challenge is that none of these factors are certain and both the time and resources for doing this are limited,” stated Chathuranga.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is yet to implement a standardised education and training system for emergency medical services in the country. According to Chathuranga, though there are private training institutions that provide basic training and facilities that train in first aid and teach the basics of medical care, a standardised training system is a dire need that must be addressed.

The 1990 Suwa Seriya service itself sends its staff to be trained in India. And as Chathuranga said: “If this crucial need is addressed, we can greatly improve the quality of our services which will in turn make way for more people to perform efficiently in the field.”

Psychological aftercare for first responders has been another issue gaining attention in light of recent events. With organisations like The Ohana Project being readily equipped to assist anyone in need of psychological aftercare and spreading awareness regarding the need for it, EMTs are steadily becoming more equipped in serving and saving without putting their own mental health at risk.

Chathuranga runs a Facebook page uniting all Sri Lankan EMTs under the name “Sri Lanka Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)”, and can often be seen sharing helpful clips and tips to better equip all those who are a part of it both technically and mentally.

It’s not a person, it’s not just a team, it’s a system

No EMT can save a life alone. When asked what goes into making an efficient team that saves lives, “it’s not just a team it’s a system,” responded Chathuranga. “There are many necessary components that go into saving a life. Just an ambulance service alone cannot do that. There are many factors that support us and there are certain factors that work against us,” he said. Time is a critical factor that most emergency medical services have to fight against. From picking up the call to getting there to transporting the patient to a safe environment, all the while making sure that their condition is stable, is a literal race against time.

But as Chathuranga enlightened us, public awareness is the most important of them all. “When an emergency occurs, people need to be able to identify that something is wrong. Early recognition is crucial and that recognition can only come from awareness.

“People also need to be aware that there are responders that they need to reach out to in times of need. The 1990 service is one such service and people are slowly becoming aware that they can reach out to us. After that, we need responders who are prepared to respond to that call.

“It is also important to understand that these responders need not be only an ambulance service. The Police and fire brigade are all trained to handle emergencies and people should be aware that they can rely on them.

“On the other hand, all these systems need to work together to ensure the needs of the people are met. As the Emergency Medical Service, we need police support for security, the support of the public services for things like disposal, and the support of the public in the little things, like not obstructing the services of an EMT or making way for the ambulance.

“When all these things come together, we can work efficiently to save lives,” expressed Chathuranga. The Easter Sunday attack was a prime example of how such a crisis can be mitigated through the support of all the different systems, including the security forces, hospitals, paramedics, and even the hundreds who lined up to donate blood when the need was made known.

The greatest rewards come only from the greatest commitment

Being an EMT is no easy task. Unlike most other occupations, it is one where every day is a new challenge and the cost of a mistake could be a life. Moreover, it is one that involves risking your own life to save another. Despite it all, the satisfaction of saving a life in danger is what gives them the energy to keep doing what they do.

Chathuranga, who was motivated to go into the field for the sole purpose of saving lives, told us that it was the same for every EMT around the world.

“Saving lives is our motive and our reward,” he stated. “We often get patients who drop by to say thank you on their way home from the hospital or call us and show their gratitude. So despite the challenges that come with being in this field, their gratitude gives us the strength to keep going,” he concluded.

To all the EMTs and first responders from the 1990 Suwa Seriya services, the Police, armed forces, hospitals, and private institutions that went unmentioned, who risked their lives to save many on the day of the Easter Sunday attack, we are indebted to you.

On behalf of the people of Sri Lanka, we express our immense gratitude to you and the services you have provided in our time of need.

In times of need

1990 Suwa Seriya services – 1990
Now contactable through the 1990 mobile app available in all three languages
Police emergency – 118/119
For emergencies and suspicious situations (Sri Lanka Army) – 113