While many countries throughout the world rely on their armed forces to help during peacetime emergencies, Costa Rica, without an army, is dependent on a completely different type of organization during such times: the Red Cross.
“It’s kind of as though the army’s responsibilities were divided between several organizations,” said Jim Batres, who has worked at the Costa Rican Red Cross as a security guard for 23 years. “But a number of them have definitely fallen on our shoulders.”
“It’s in times like these that the Costa Rican Red Cross is at the service of its country and its people, and we will do anything and everything to ensure their safety,” said Red Cross President Miguel Jiménez during a press conference dealing with the recent influenza (A)H1N1 outbreak.
Although a private and independent organization, the Costa Rican Red Cross has assumed primary responsibility for a variety of emergency response duties, including rescues, collapsed buildings, vehicle crashes and stranded or lost persons. They also have assumed responsibility for evacuating people affected by flooding, volcanoes or earthquakes.
In coordination with the National Emergency Commission (CNE), the governmental entity that works with the Red Cross in cases of natural disasters, Red Cross volunteers rescued many people from collapsed homes and landslides after the 6.2-magnitude earthquake on January 9 that killed 23 people and left hundreds more homeless.
The volunteers, who heroically searched for survivors and bodies, were praised by news outlets, government officials and citizens. CNE officials thanked the Red Cross for their “quick reaction and unfaltering work” throughout the ordeal.
Despite their importance to stability and rescue efforts in Costa Rica, the Red Cross is composed mainly of volunteers.
The Costa Rican Red Cross is a completely independent organization with 900 paid employees and approximately 5,000 volunteers working in almost every city and town throughout the country.
Some people have volunteered for one year and others for more than 25 years, and most started their volunteer work with the Red Cross Youth Program, designed to get young people involved. Juan Zúñiga, 27, became involved in high school and never questioned continuing afterwards.
“It seemed like the logical step,” said Zúñiga, who has been a Red Cross volunteer for 12 years. “I enjoyed learning and giving back to the community then, and I still do.”
The credentials for joining the Red Cross are simple. A volunteer must be over 18 years of age and have a high school education.
Once part of the Red Cross, volunteers are offered courses on different types of rescues, such as learning how to extract a person from a crushed car or pull a person to safety using a rope. Every volunteer must agree to work at least 40 hours per month and, according to those interviewed, there is rarely a shortage of volunteers.
“What we do have is volunteers; what we don’t have is financial aid,” said Alexander Sojo, a volunteer who has changed positions a few times in his 24 years working with the Red Cross. “There’s a long list of equipment we always need; like medical supplies, uniforms, more stretchers…”
In the nation’s planning, different types of emergencies are assigned to different organizations, but the Red Cross is the only one that isn’t funded by the government.
“Structure fires are the firefighters’ responsibility, the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry deals with forest fires and we work with the firefighters if a building collapses,” said Batres. “But we also deal with car crashes, domestic disputes, floods and natural disasters.”
Finding Needed Funds
When asked how often the Red Cross finds itself short of funding, the general consensus among those interviewed was “every day.”
General ambulance service is the main source of income for the Costa Rican Red Cross. It generally receives 50 colones per kilometer from the user’s insurance – usually the Social Security System (Caja). The organization also is sometimes given a yearly grant from the International Red Cross Federation or financially supported in specific instances by other organizations.
For example, after the January earthquake, the CNE paid the Red Cross for its help. The CNE and the Red Cross usually only work together after natural disasters, though the Red Cross generally deals with floods on its own.
During the (A)H1N1 flu scare, the Red Cross had a special ambulance designated for anyone demonstrating symptoms of the illness.
The ambulance was completely covered in plastic, and the volunteer riding with the suspected flu victim had to wear protective gear.
“The equipment needed to deal with any contagious outbreak is expensive,” said Jimenez. For the flu equipment, the Health Ministry provided the necessary funds.
Volunteers usually work one 12-hour shift per week and have to be ready to deal with any type of emergency.
“It’s not an easy job,” said Sojo. “Sometimes you arrive at the scene of a car crash to help and you find out the children are already dead and there’s nothing you can do…you feel so helpless.”
He said that the sadness is balanced by those times when a person is saved because the Red Cross showed up in time.
“Normally there are three feelings: adrenaline when you’re headed to the scene, or in action, and then either an immense sadness or an immense satisfaction at being able to help someone,” said Sojo.
“The most satisfying feeling in the world is the moment when you deliver a wounded person to the hospital and you know that you’ve helped give that person a chance to survive,” he said.