The following was written for a British Red Cross magazine, so it’s written in a nicer style than usual. Those of you who just want gory pictures should scroll to the end where there’s a slideshow.
Over the first weekend of July a team of first aiders from Edinburgh University First Aid Group travelled to Oldenburg, Germany to represent the UK in the First Aid Convention in Europe (FACE) 2009. A major aspect of FACE each year is a first aid competition, setting teams of first aiders from around Europe against each other to manage and treat a range of simulated scenarios.
Comprising of Paul “Grinst” Budgen, Scott Clarke, Daniel Costigliola, Heather Barnshaw, Rachel Macintosh and led by Emma Padfield, the team have been training for the past year, having won the UK’s NAFAC (NAtional First Aid Competition) previously.
Their training has consisted of many weekends of hard work in Edinburgh and one intensive weekend’s training in June in Staffordshire, all under the watchful eye of Lyn Covey. Also representing the UK were a team from the south of England, “Team UK 2”. I was touched and privileged to be invited along as team photographer.
Come Thursday the 2nd of June, the team was gathered in the check-in hall of Edinburgh Airport, bags packed, first aid kits triple checkedand the conundrum of “how do you transport a flag and flagpole?” solved.
The morning represented the culmination of months of fastidious, near-obsessive organisation and preparation but the team were dismayed to find queues at the check in desks looping back against themselves. Once the luggage was checked in, it became apparent the team had a mere 10 minutes to get to their gate and board their flight. The line for security clearance was fearsome, but nowhere near as alarming as the thought that the flight would be missed, the event delayed and the wrath of Lyn Covey brought down on the team’s head!
A runner was dispatched to the front of the queue to plead the team’s case and within a few minutes they were hustled to the front of the line, fast tracked through security and waved on towards their gate. It later transpired that the team member who’d spoken to the security guard had made a meal of the fact that a “Red Cross medical team” were “flying out to Eastern Europe” and had to make their connection in Schipol. The fact that Oldenburg is closer to Amsterdam than Berlin and that the Iron Curtain fell over 10 years ago was innocently glossed over – words can be powerful things!
Arriving in Oldenburg (after a fraught sprint through Schipol airport to make the connecting flight) the team were welcomed with a warm round of applause and barrage of camera flashes – turns out men in kilts are fairly thin on the ground in Germany – and united with Fidi, our host for the weekend. It was Fidi’s job to ensure we were in the right place, at the right time, wearing the right clothes and doing the right thing.
Imagine a job description somewhere between a Border Collie and Mary Poppins and you’ll not go far wrong. Barely seventeen, Fidi was smiley, pleasant and accommodating with textbook English.
It took her less than an hour of democratically asking the indecisive, easy-going team what they wanted to do in Oldenburg with their free time before she realised she’d need to be a little more proactive. By midafternoon on the first day Fidi had developed a classically Teutonic method of leading. She would stand up, address the group, “Now we are going for ice-cream in the town square. Come on.” and the team would follow her like a row of obedient ducklings.
The day culminated with an enormous open-air barbecue, twenty eight teams from across Europe (and further, in some cases) came together in the conference centre’s car-park. It was here that the team met their supporters, friends and familiar faces from across Scotland who had flown out specially to cheer them on in the competition. Their dedication was mind-blowing and their energy and enthusiasm certainly kick-started the party!
Friday’s schedule included lectures, a convention and a parade through Oldenburg to commence Saturday’s competion. The supporters took a day-trip to a nearby harbour town while the team made full use of the convention’s attractions, including challenging each other to fitness tests and donating blood.
The Deutsches Rotes Kreuz had clearly pulled out all the stops in displaying their equipment and services, including several trucks with the brilliantly dramatic legend “katastrophenschutz”.
In the absence of Lyn (who was sadly unable to join the UK teams, despite her best efforts), the Scottish team snagged a DRK first aid trainer and were put through their CPR and recovery paces one last time before returning to the hostel.
The weather for Friday evening’s parade was intensely hot. At 28 degrees in the shade I was in equal parts thrilled that I could wear shorts and a polo, while sympathetic for the two UK teams in their smart trousers, buttoned collars and ties. All participating teams were represented in the parade, lining up in disciplined ranks in Oldenburg’s town square while a host of local and DRK dignitaries addressed them, before leading the whole flag-waving, horn-tooting, song-bellowing horde through the town’s streets.
What struck me firmly during the parade was the town’s pride in the Red Cross volunteers that marched past them. The DRK answer and manage approximately 50% of emergency ambulance calls in Germany and the emblem and organisation are viewed with respect and gratitude. I spotted one little lad on his father’s shoulders in the crowd waving a home-made Red Cross flag and sporting a “Junior Rescue Team” teeshirt.
When was the last time you heard of a kid in Britain aspiring to be “A Red Cross first aider” when they grew up? It was clear that this country knew a thing or two about promoting the organisation.
Saturday’s competition pulled no punches and occupied a sector of Oldenburg several square miles in area. The team were up at five, breakfasting at six and shuttled to their first station at seven. The competition’s format was spread across twenty eight stages, divided into first aid challenges, fun challenges and rest stops. As the day went on, those rest stops would become ever more important!
Piling out of the shuttle bus at the first challenge, the team were pleased to see they were being given an easy run-in; a “fun station”. Even more pleasing was the merry band of saltire waving supporters standing at the kerb, cheering and shouting for the team despite the early start we’d all had.
I’m confident I can speak for all the team members in thanking our supporters again, especially for their assistance before the competition where they agreed to pose as casualties for one last practice scene. The opportunity for the team to blow off steam and get their “game heads” on was extremely valuable and, I’m sure, was a great part of the team’s impressive performance through the rest of the day.
At eight o’clock sharp the team and I were advised that we were now “in isolation”, permitted only to talk to each other, Fidi our host and competition officials. We would remain in this state until the competition’s conclusion some ten hours later.
The pace was unrelenting throughout the day. The fun stations had the team balancing on stacks of milk crates high in the air, swinging each other on massive wooden A-frames, diving in ball pools and milking wooden cows. The rest stations were manned by ever-smiling teams of DRK volunteers, with endless flasks of coffee, bottles of water, and baskets of fruit and snacks.
The first aid stations, however, were another matter entirely.
On their second scene the team were met by a firefighter in full turn-out gear and helmet who explained that “the van was very hot” and that “the fire crew will keep you safe”.
They followed the firefighter around the corner to find a van in the middle of the town square, its walls scorched, windscreen smashed out, smoke pouring from its shattered windows and a fire crew hosing it down. Water vapour and spray filled the air, the thud of the fire appliance running in the background made conversation difficult at best.
In the middle of the scene a gas cannister had exploded, shards of metal bursting outwards. To one side a resuscitation dummy lay on the floor, its head split open, blood and (I suspect) minced bratwurst spilling onto the pavement. Two workmen lay nearby, one with a spike of metal embedded in his forehead, another with major burns to his face, chest, arms and airway.
The team got stuck in, made the difficult decision not to resuscitate the dummy and set to treating the two seriously injured patients.
This was a far cry from the “a man has cut his hand in the kitchen” scenarios we so often churn out for our first aiders to practice on.
The pace of the competition didn’t let up throughout the day. There were car crashes with trapped patients, industrial accidents with heavy machinery still in operation and a bungled bank heist in the middle of Oldenburg High Street, using a branch of the local bank as the backdrop, complete with bullet-riddled car and panicked, gun waving security guards.
In fact, the cruellest twist the competition set was to have the team walk off a particularly harrowing incident into a “fun station” that comprised thirty questions on the life history of Henri Dunant. Those Germans, they know how to pile on the stress!
Sunday ended with dinner and an awards ceremony, the team, smart and united in matching kilts and sashes placed a most respectable 5th out of 28 teams overall before setting thoughts of first aid aside to concentrate on the far more important task of partying the night away.
Standing outside the conference centre, watching my colleagues and friends hugging, dancing and chatting with complete strangers from around the world, purely on the basis of wearing the same emblem, it struck me that the seven principles of the International Red Cross have a very real significance outside our voluntary service.
Many of the participants at FACE 2009 didn’t speak a lot of English (but then, my Croatian is notoriously ropey these days) but the simple act of wearing the Red Cross or Crescent was a clear, unspoken declaration to everyone else in the room.
“This is what I believe in…I see you have the same values…let’s be friends.”
I’m confident there are hundreds of people the team spoke to and socialised with over the weekend that they will never see again.
It doesn’t matter.
The international relations that are developed at such events are far more important than the personal ones. We’re a member of an international organisation, we all know that.
But to meet, work and socialise with hundreds of your colleagues from across the globe?
Then you really know it.
I’ve cut the slideshow down to just the “challenge” in the middle of the day, so you guys don’t have to sit through photos of people you don’t know at a party you didn’t attend. The slideshow is still 100 images, but you should really take a look, there was some incredible moulage in there.