Trek Medics Improves Emergency Response in the Dominican Republic
Tuesday, July 05, 2016 | Comments

In one year, more than 100 emergencies were dispatched through a new system implemented in rural Dominican Republic. The short message service (SMS)-based dispatch service developed by Trek Medics International, a nonprofit organization created by paramedics to improve emergency response in the developing world, is shortening response times through text messaging and mobile networks used by trained volunteer first responders.

With a tight budget and funding support from Google, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Cardinal Health and private donors over the years, the Beacon software has evolved to a version 2.0 in collaboration with Vision Point Systems, a government services company made up of scientists, engineers and IT professionals.

Not only has Trek equipped the Dominican Republic with Beacon, but since the organization’s founding in 2009, more than 55 volunteers have been trained to use the system and be first responders on the scene of emergencies along the countryside. The volunteers respond to texts and use emergency motorcycles equipped with sidecar gurneys to transport victims.

“We support local community organizations so they can affiliate with us — whether it’s fire rescue, the Red Cross, CB radio operators, lifeguards, banana plantation employees, whatever community organization exists — we work through them to implement emergency response,” former paramedic and Trek founder Jason Friesen said.

In return, those organizations and agencies supply cellphones through Trek, and volunteers receive first-aid training, a pressed uniform and free mobile phone service (one in five volunteers). Phone subsidies are left up to the discretion of a local fire chief or community leader when it comes to choosing which 20 percent of the volunteers get their cellphone bills paid, based on how many calls they respond to, Friesen said.

With 4.5 billion mobile phone subscribers in the developing world with no way to call for help during emergencies, Beacon mimics dispatch technology used in developed countries. An initial alert is sent through text message on a server and, in sequence, a volunteer first responder replies and proceeds to the location. If additional resources are needed, transportation to a local hospital takes place.

The software, which is affordable at 2.6 cents per text reply, requires minimal IT work, can handle multi-victim incidents and doesn’t need internet connection to function, according to Trek’s website.

Although it’s been six years of progress and many lives have been saved, Friesen said his organization is just scratching the surface and performing well below potential. Trek has also been working to improve emergency response conditions in Tanzania and has had a presence in Mexico and Haiti in the past. With 106 volunteers now trained in Tanzania, he said he’s still working on finding more volunteers in the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican Republic was designated as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for driving, according to a 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) report. Motorcycle accidents are the most common in Monte Cristi, where Trek is stationed, Dianne Dorville Tavarez, Dominican Republic program director, said.

“Here, we don’t have 9-1-1 or ambulances that take you to the closest hospital, responding to every call,” Tavarez, said. “It’s important that I go into this community and take time to learn and connect to see how we can better benefit everyone in emergencies through Trek.”

When Friesen was looking for software development help at the start of Trek, he sought support from Vision Point Systems and semi-retired geophysicist, William Prescott. With experience in the Peace Corps and a love for coding, he began volunteer work for Trek, mainly de-bugging the first version of Beacon.

He’s volunteered three years and more than $200,000 worth of his time, Friesen said, and they’re working on paying him back. Money aside, Prescott said it’s important to better prepare developing countries for emergencies.

“Beacon, coupled with inexpensive motorcycle emergency vehicles, is a very cost-effective and efficient way to provide emergency response in developing countries that cannot support traditional ambulance-based emergency response,” Prescott said. “Traditional ambulances are expensive to purchase and equip, but more significantly, they cannot be maintained without a huge infrastructure of maintenance people, parts and money.”

As for the future of Beacon, there are plans to improve it. “We have a long list of enhancements it needs now and a wish list of things we would add if money were available,” Prescott said.

Friesen, who thought of the idea for Trek while taking an EMT class, used to travel and volunteer throughout Central America and saw that emergency and mission-critical communications were missing. “As a (former) paramedic in the U.S., I know a lot about our system and what we can do to help developing countries with no emergency communications whatsoever,” he said. “I think our systems are working well for covering a population of at least 150,000 people in two countries, responding to more than 20 incidents a month. It can only get better.”

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