JAKARTA: As soon as the wailing sound of an ambulance sirens were heard, three motorcyclists in matching leather jackets immediately sprang into action, hastily putting on their helmets and hopping on their motorcycles.
With their hands revving the throttles, the three motorcyclists quickly caught up with the ambulance.
The emergency workers inside the ambulance were familiar with the trio, and one of them soon rolled down the window to inform the bikers where the ambulance was heading: A COVID-19 isolation facility in the southern outskirts of Jakarta.
Minutes into their journey, the motorcyclists’ presence became obvious. The three-way intersection ahead – deprived of any traffic light, road marking or police officer – was chockablock with cars, trucks and motorcycles competing for space and right of way.
With his own sirens blaring, one of the motorcyclists gestured to the incoming traffic to stop and make way for the ambulance.
For the next 15 minutes, it was non-stop work for the three bikers as they gestured to cars and motorcycles to yield or pull over to the curb and stop traffic at U-turns and intersections. While most road users heeded the three’s unspoken demands, some did not.
The three bikers are members of the Indonesian Escorting Ambulance (sic), a group of motorcyclists who volunteer during their spare time to help emergency vehicles navigate through congested streets and roads of Jakarta and other Indonesian cities.
Before the pandemic, Jakarta consistently ranked as one of the world’s most congested cities, according to studies conducted by technology company TomTom. It found that on certain days, roads in the metropolis could be 95 per cent congested.
The city is also home to unruly drivers, with nearly 500,000 traffic violations recorded by the Jakarta police each year.
It is common to find an ambulance stuck in traffic in Jakarta and lives are sometimes lost because an ambulance cannot get to where it needs to go in time.
“I feel upset every time I see people not yielding to ambulances. How can people be so insensitive to not give the right of way to ambulances?” 23-year-old Sebastian Dwiantoro, an IEA regional coordinator for the Jakarta suburb of Depok told CNA.
“Ambulances are emergency vehicles. Meanwhile, we see ministers and other VIPs receiving vehicle escorts. And people give way to them. Why shouldn’t ambulances receive their own escort?”
The pandemic, IEA members said, had compelled them to work longer hours, escorting more ambulances and farther. But it was all worth it when they received a thank you from the patients' family members.
HOW IT STARTED
IEA now has close to 2,000 members with representatives in 80 cities and municipalities across Indonesia, something which was once unimaginable for the group’s founder Nova Widyatmoko who was only looking to set up a chat group for like-minded motorcyclists back in March 2017.
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“Every day, I had to go through heavily congested streets. Almost every day, I would find an ambulance stuck in traffic. Sometimes, out of spontaneity, I helped clear paths for the ambulance and sometimes other riders helped as well,” Widyatmoko said.
“It got me thinking, what if I could get all these people together and form a group so we can communicate better and help more ambulances on a more regular basis? I wrote a Facebook post and shared it with my friends. I created a WhatsApp group and called it Indonesian Escorting Ambulance.”
The social media post got shared and reshared. In just a few weeks, 150 people joined despite the fact that no one was getting paid and everyone has to pay for their own fuel and equipment.
Sometimes, members modify their motorcycles to suit the job by adding sirens, flood lights, red and blue flashers and side boxes to store first aid kits, all out of their own pocket.
Most of the original members were from Jakarta and its surrounding suburbs, the 28-year-old disaster relief worker said. “But there were also people from other Indonesian cities who expressed interests in setting up their own chapter,” he said.
As its numbers grew, Widyatmoko said some members began to encourage him to turn IEA into a formal organisation, which they did in October that year.
“That group does not only consist of volunteer riders but also ambulance drivers we meet on the streets. After we escorted them, we told them: ‘If you need our help again, we can arrange something and coordinate.’”
The ambulance drivers soon began telling their colleagues and superiors about IEA. Through word of mouth, the organisation now works with nearly every hospital and ambulance provider across the country.
IEA also got the attention of the Indonesian Red Cross, fire departments and various disaster relief agencies and organisations.
“It has grown to more than just escorting ambulances. Our members are trained in first aid so we sometimes act as first responders. We are trained in disaster mitigation. So even in areas with no traffic jam, we are present,” he said, adding that the training was provided by the Indonesian Red Cross.
The volunteers would either hang out at the secretariats or at home, and spring into action as soon as coordinators like Dwiantoro receive an SOS from the paramedics and put together an escort team.
LONG HOURS DUE TO COVID-19
Ever since the pandemic, IEA member Wildan Satrio Utomo said he has been escorting more and more ambulances and working longer hours. In total, Jakarta has recorded more than 390,000 COVID-19 cases, with around 1,000 new cases a day.
“There were days when I had to escort one ambulance to another from early in the morning to late in the evening,” the 23-year-old told CNA.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, there were not that many COVID-19 hospitals, so we had to escort patients from all corners of Jakarta to COVID-19 hospitals downtown,” he added.
The situation was better when Jakarta was placed under a lockdown, with no traffic congestion impeding the progress of ambulances.
Dwiantoro, who works as a security guard when he is not volunteering for IEA, said the group’s busiest days occurred in the second half of 2020 when the government began easing COVID-19 restrictions.
“We can escort up to three ambulances in a single day. Before the pandemic, there can be only one ambulance in need of escorting and there were days when our service was not needed at all,” he said.
Between August and January, a number of cities in Indonesia, including Jakarta faced serious hospital bed shortage.
During this period, dozens of COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients across Indonesia died because medical workers could not find them an intensive care unit bed to treat their illnesses. There was even one patient from Depok, just south of Jakarta, who died in a taxi on Jan 3 after he was turned down by 10 different hospitals.
Utomo noted that during that period he could spend more than an hour escorting an ambulance from one hospital to another on the other side of the city because of the hospital bed shortage.
“There was a shortage in medical equipment too. The ambulance driver told us to get to the next hospital as quickly as we could even though the two hospitals were very far apart because the ambulance could only afford to carry one oxygen tank,” he said.
Utomo, an IT engineer, said such hectic escorting situations were happening less frequently these days as officials had addressed the hospital bed shortage issue.
But there is another problem - Jakarta’s traffic congestion is starting to return to pre-pandemic level.
DREAM FOR ROAD USERS TO VOLUNTARILY GIVE WAY
Dwiantoro said the pandemic had a surprisingly positive side effect.
“People are becoming more aware of the importance of giving way to ambulances and other emergency vehicles. Perhaps they are scared that the ambulance might be carrying a COVID-19 patient. Perhaps it’s because there have been more and more people who need to use the ambulance,” he said.
Utomo agreed, saying that more people now give way to emergency vehicles without much intervention from IEA volunteers.
“But there are still people who sometimes wouldn’t yield. Sometimes, they even scold us,” he said.
“One time when we were out escorting (an ambulance), even as we tried to be polite in requesting and begging people to step aside, one driver said, ‘Don’t tell me what to do. I am not a child.’ Another time, one said, ‘Why are you escorting (ambulances)? You’re only creating more noise.’”
Utomo said even after apologising and requesting drivers to yield or move their vehicles momentarily, some drivers refused to listen.
“Instead of getting into an argument and causing the ambulance further delay, we move on. I sometimes get upset but we are rewarded when a patient’s family approaches us to thank us. That really takes all my frustration away,” he said.
Widyatmoko, the founder of IEA, said he is happy with the prospect that one day ambulance escort volunteers are no longer needed.
“That is our dream. We want Indonesia to be more like some countries where drivers instinctively give way to ambulances or other emergency vehicles in a traffic jam,” he said.
“There are other fields where our members can contribute like disaster response, search and rescue and first aid. Even when our vision is achieved and people’s attitude towards emergency vehicles changes, we will have other activities which make our organisation continue to exist.”
Read this story in Bahasa Indonesia here.