Pic by Sassanda Liyanarachchi

The Ministry of Health recently announced an emergency number to call an ambulance in case of an emergency. The public is requested to call 1990 during a medical emergency. This is a toll-free number that offers 24-hour service.

This service is a concept of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Harsha de Silva. Commenting to Nation he said that the initial idea was triggered due to a personal experience at the time he served in the opposition. While in Trincomalee, he witnessed a serious road accident.

“There was no ambulance to take a lady with serious injuries to hospital, and there was lot of procedure to follow. We finally transported her in a car from Kantale to Colombo and managed to save her life since there was an emergency doctor on board with us. It was then that I thought if I ever got an opportunity, I would launch a pre hospital care ambulance service here,” he declares.

In March 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modhi paid an official state visit to Sri Lanka. “It is a custom to offer the hosting country a gift. I was in the policy ministry at the time and when India inquired after our requirements I suggested to the Prime Minister an ambulance service.” The responsibility of contacting Indian Prime Minister Modhi fell upon Dr de Silva.

“I personally spoke with Prime Minister Modhi and as a result, Sri Lanka was gifted a 7.8 million-rupee grant.” With this investment, 89 brand new ambulances were brought and the emergency ambulance service commenced in Western and Southern Provinces. “The investment from the grant is adequate to fund the service for one year, until July 2017. Afterwards, I hope to find the best method to finance the service. If it is possible I would like to do it without using government money, through a public-private partnership,” he discloses.

Dr de Silva also states that these are not regular ambulances but are “very sophisticated up to the 911 standard.” The ambulances are equipped with electronic monitors to monitor the body’s functions, oxygen supply units, automated external defibrillators as well as many other facilities. “The Prime Minister referred to this as a micro hospital,” he says. According to Dr de Silva, all 260 local Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) employed for the service, have undergone vigorous training in India.

“India has the world’s largest ambulance service, their ratings are higher than that of US.” He informs that there are also 200 pilots to man the ambulances and 50 personnel serving at the command and control centre. “All these are Sri Lankan citizens, except one Indian at the command and control centre who is currently assisting in transferring the technology,” he says.

These ambulances are parked at 88 police stations and are under warranty from DEMO. Dr de Silva states that on December 2, ambulances were dispatched for 99 times. “On Monday we informed the public of the service via text messages. On Tuesday we got 8900 calls from people inquiring on the service.” Currently, the emergency service only delivers patients to government hospitals. “We have to have a payment scheme if we extend the services to private hospitals in the future,” he says.

The staff at the call centre is extremely patient and well trained to obtain the necessary information in a calm manner, even when the caller is tensed. They address the caller in a cultured, soothing manner, in order to calm those in crisis. They obtain clear directions and dispatch the ambulance, quite different to the rude and tactless ambulance services Sri Lankan public is used to. The ambulance would then deliver the patient to the nearest hospital for treatment.

WHO Representative to Sri Lanka, Dr Jacob Kumaresan emphasized on the importance of emergency care as follows. “Time is critical when an emergency happens, whether it is a road traffic crash or a heart attack. A well-functioning ambulance service is an essential part of an emergency care system, and should be accessible to all. Ambulance services save lives, by stabilizing a person at the scene and transferring them as quickly as possible to more advanced care.”