(This article was originally published at GOOD.IS – Sept. 21, 2013)
After teaching English in Central America for a few years, I returned to the U.S. and knew I wanted to do something different, but I wasn’t quite sure what that should be. I learned a lot from the experience and really enjoyed it, but after 20 plus years as a student and then teacher, I wanted to get out of the classroom. One of the things I realized was that education was something of a professional “backstage pass”—a job skill that, generally speaking, was in high demand and could do a lot to help find work pretty much anywhere. As an American, speaking Spanish was another one of these passes. So when I started looking for a new career path, I began focusing on jobs that offered experience with wide practical application. After ruling out law, politics, accounting, and farming, I found an Emergency Medical Technician class and signed up, figuring emergencies happen everywhere and people are always looking for help.
Applying a Teaching Background to a New Career
The first person I met with when I finally got a job working on an ambulance in San Diego was a paramedic named Paul Maxwell, who had spent time volunteering in Tijuana with the Red Cross, and who had written a language-training manual, “Rapid Rescue Spanish.” The teaching experience and Spanish language “passes” proved effective before I had even finished the new hire orientation, as Paul recruited me to help teach his medical Spanish class. Within six months I started volunteering in Tijuana.
Finding the Opportunity to Do Good
While riding ambulances in Tijuana definitely provided a bit of the adventure I was looking for, it didn’t take long to realize that the challenges Tijuana EMS was facing were quite substantial, and just going down to ride ambulances and run some calls started to feel a bit voyeuristic to me, so I began looking for ways to contribute to their work in more concrete ways. I was able to get some much-needed equipment donations, but that also seemed limited, and I started thinking a lot more about what a nonprofit could offer in the realm of international EMS development. However, there weren’t too many opportunities available, and one doctor with experience in the field told me flat out that if I wanted to work for an international EMS development organization, and make a career out of it, I’d have to do it myself.
A day or so later, I was reading an article on road traffic injuries in the developing world and learned that despite having only 50 percent of the world’s registered vehicles, developing countries suffered 90 percent of the world’s road traffic fatalities, and 80 percent of those died before arriving to the hospital. It goes without saying that starting my own organization didn’t seem like such a stretch after all—demand appeared to be quite high for basic emergency care.
Strengthening Existing Models to Innovate
At Trek Medics, we’re improving emergency medical care in developing countries. Our long-term goal is to champion a comprehensive, integrated approach to emergency medical system development that enables communities to build their own systems, on their own terms, using their own resources, and in a way that matches their specific needs. Society has had systems to transport the sick and wounded long before ambulances ever arrived on scene, so there’s no reason why improvements to these systems need to be neglected today simply for not having an ambulance. This guiding principle has to led to an approach that emphasizes leveraging available resources in order to strengthen the systems that already exist. Just because a community doesn’t have an ambulance, or a fleet, does not mean they don’t transport people to the hospital while attempting some type of care en route. They can, and they do. We focus on refining that.
We’ve developed a new SMS-based dispatching software called BEACON, which effectively crowd-sources Good Samaritans the same way you’d crowd-source a taxi. If a community can’t respond effectively and consistently to the run-of-the-mill car wrecks—and there are lots of them—they have little hope when the earthquake or hurricane comes. Communication is a big part of the problem: “How do you send help where it’s needed, and when it’s needed?” The EMS systems used in affluent countries simply cannot be replicated in countries with far fewer resources. But while policies to develop effective emergency care systems are slow in being adopted, millions of people around the world are regularly acting as default first responders with little more than the transport and cell phones they already have. We hope to do to basic emergency response in the developing world what the American Heart Association has been doing with CPR for a very long time: teach it to everyone. The only difference is that we don’t need mannequins—we’ll use whoever’s around.
Our Needs and How You Can Plug In
Software Programmers: We could definitely use a (volunteer) software programmer or two to help with our dispatching software. If crowdfunding goes well on Indiegogo, volunteers would become employees, but for now, we could use an extra set of hands under the hood.
Graphic Designers: Everyone can relate to a car accident, and women can identify with childbirth, but how do you convey that in a meaningful way? “What would you do if there was no 911 to call?” Designers can help sort through the vast issues we’re addressing with emergency care and translate them into simple graphic representations that the public will connect with. We could use someone who can help us develop that message and who can do it with tact. We’re walking a fine line between advocacy and voyeurism, so there’s a definite need to develop this message without sugar-coating it.
Animators: We’d love to create animation that simulates our software. Beacon isn’t an app so much as it is a public utility. As we can’t just give it away as a download, it would be excellent to have someone help us with a simple animated simulator of sorts.
Marketers: We’re a bunch of EMTs and paramedics, and we like to have fun—a good sense of humor is absolutely essential to work on an ambulance—so we need marketing that can also translate that. Abject poverty can, and should tug at the heart strings, but that type of marketing can come off as dehumanizing and undignified, particularly among the people and cultures who are supposed to be benefiting. We’re involved in community and youth development as much as we are focused on saving lives, so we want to show how our work is empowering and, yes, fun. Not hopeless or helpless.
Triple Bottom Line Partners: Emergency medical services have a lot of innovative opportunities for substantive corporate social responsibility programs; healthy and safe communities lead to reduced healthcare costs, fewer productivity losses, and a general sense within the community that government and corporate leaders have their best interests in mind. Increasing the availability of basic emergency care and transport is an excellent way to improve the triple bottom line, and could include a wide range of partners, including telecom providers, automobile manufacturers, ASP/ISA or any surf company, IOC, FIFA, MLB, Intel, Google and other companies we’d love to work with. GoPro cameras could offer a lot in the way of improving emergency medical training, public health surveillance, and community outreach for low-literacy communities; they graciously donated some cameras to us, and there’s great potential to really do a lot more and make some big advances in community-based emergency medical systems.
I often hear people talk about an entrepreneur’s need to “to really believe in what you’re doing.” I think this is absolutely true, but believing in an idea doesn’t just mean it’s plausible; simply because you can see it as a legitimate endeavor doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best return on your investment, even if it can make money. So when you hear people asking you to question whether you believe in your own idea, the point I think they’re trying to make is asking yourself whether or not you really believe the idea is going to be worth all the time and sacrifice you’re going to have to put into it.
What I mean is, we’re putting time and efforts into this because we believe in it, and we hope you’ll join us. Check out our Indiegogo campaign if you’d like to support us.