Free, comprehensive emergency medical services are available 24 hours a day to
help deal with Phnom Penh's calamities. The Post's Beth Moorthy and Samreth
Sopha find out what happens when you dial 119. Photos by Heng Sinith.
An injured woman is tended to on her way to hospital. Photo by Heng Sinith
THE phone rings in a small room behind Calmette Hospital, and an emergency technician
springs for it. "Where? Where?" he demands.
He puts the phone down and heads for the ambulance, followed by the rest of his team,
who moments before were lounging around a TV. The instant response is all in a day's
work for the emergency medical team.
"It's never boring, we get lots of calls," says first aid technician So
Maneath, 30. The city's four free emergency medical teams go out an average of 500
times per month.
The team piles into the ambulance: the driver and first aid technician in front,
the doctor in the back. They hit the siren as they pull out onto Monivong Boulevard
- but the traffic flow doesn't lessen significantly.
"The problem is, people don't pull over," laments Em Chan, 32, a soldier
turned ambulance driver. "The people don't really know [to pull over] and don't
really want to know, they don't respect the law ... it's definitely frustrating."
The ambulance battles its way around a roundabout and heads up Route 5, losing a
bid for an intersection with a dump truck and dodging traffic which continues relatively
unabated - motos blithely overtaking cars, putting themselves directly in the ambulance's
Still, the response time is quick, even in rush hour. There are two ambulance teams
based at northerly Calmette, and two at southerly Preah Norodom Sihanouk Hospital;
between them, the maximum response time to anywhere in Phnom Penh is 15 minutes,
according to Frederic Muller, a consultant with the French Red Cross.
"I like driving fast," smiles Chan, although he says he rarely goes over
60kph in the city.
The ambulance pulls up at the accident scene less than ten minutes after the call
was placed. Crowds of people are standing around, at first obscuring the victim,
a woman run over by a moto. The ambulance crew leaps out, grabs the stretcher and
carries it to the woman. She has serious-looking wounds on her face, and the doctor
quickly okays her to be lifted onto the stretcher.
Once she is safely in the ambulance, her daughter holding her hand, the doctor begins
to check her blood pressure and clean and bandage her wounds. But the ambulance can't
pull out for its return trip due to the traffic jam the crowds of onlookers and rubbernecking
drivers have created.
"There's always so many people in the street, it's a problem, they all want
to go in the ambulance," says Muller. "It's hard to tell people to stay
away, let us work."
With the help of police, the ambulance clears a path and gets underway, finishing
the round trip in less than 20 minutes. The woman is rushed into Calmette's emergency
room - and will never have to pay a single riel for the quick action that might have
saved her life.
Their job done, the medics pull off their rubber gloves and head back to the ready
room, to wait for the next call.
The city's only free emergency medical service began work in late September 1997,
according to Anne Schweighofer, chief of delegation of the French Red Cross.
One of SAMU's fleet of four ambulances. Photo by Heng Sinith.
That year's massive tragedies - the March grenade attack which killed almost 20 and
the September plane crash which killed 64 - spurred the program into action.
"At the beginning, we had no building, we all slept in hammocks - we started
with nothing, just one ambulance and enough money for the staff," recalls Muller.
"In March 97, there was nobody to take care of the people - now this will never
happen again because we are here."
The SAMU (the French acronym for emergency medical service) staff are all from the
Cambodian Red Cross, but the program is funded by the French Red Cross and the European
Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO). A second ambulance team was added in Jan 98,
and in Sept 98 ECHO funded two more.
Thanks to an intensive Khmer-language publicity campaign, the ambulances are receiving
over 250 phone calls per month. Both the emergency number, 119, and the regular land
line, (023) 724 891, connect immediately to the ready room.
"It's free to call 119 from any phone, mobile phones, public phones," says
Schweighofer. "But we do get kids calling sometimes from public phones, so it's
good we have the other line too."
Many of the call-outs, however, come over the ICOM radio from police who get to the
accident site first. "We work very closely with the police," Schweighofer
says, explaining that when the program started, the FRC did a training day with the
police. "It works very well."
From Sept 97 to Feb 99, the emergency medical teams have been called out 4335 times.
Despite the intransigence of Phnom Penh drivers, the ambulances have only had three
accidents - twice they were hit side-on by cars (whose drivers both paid for the
damage) and once a driver hit and killed a motorcyclist who was driving on the wrong
side of the road with no lights.
"It was terrible, we are very sorry about that," Schweighofer says. "But
there have only been three accidents, and none of them were our fault."
A total of 36 Cambodian medical staff - 12 teams of three, all male - are on rotation
duty, plus three receptionists who can answer the phone in Khmer, English and French.
Each team works a 24-hour shift and then has two days off.
Almost two-thirds of calls stem from traffic accidents, especially between 5pm and
But the emergency workers agree that the hardest part of the job is when firearms
"Sometimes it's hard when people make joke calls, but that's not so frequent,"
says logistics coordinator Muth Pisei.
"But what I really don't like is guns, sometimes there's military or police
there and I'm afraid."
The program currently operates in and around Phnom Penh. One man was brought to Calmette
from 40km outside the city. Neang Pheas, the victim's wife, said local police called
the ambulance and it arrived within 40 minutes of her husband's motorbike accident.
While lamenting she is too poor to afford hospital treatment, she said she was happy
the ambulance was free.
Another injured woman is hurried out of the ambulance. Photo by Heng Sinith
Muller says that the service has helped change people's attitudes towards accident
victims: "They used to shake people . . . or pile them onto cyclos to get them
to the hospital. Now they wait for us."
Schweighofer says they would like to expand the program, adding two ambulances each
in Siem Reap and Kampong Cham, but at the moment lack the funds. The two-year program
funding will expire in Sept 99 and she is concerned about where money will come from
to keep the service going.
The running cost for one ambulance is about $15,000 per year, which Schweighofer
says works out to a mere $6 per intervention.
"We are the only ambulance, the only ones who can help [for free]," says
first aid technician Maneath. "I feel happy to be able to help."