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UAE: How volunteers juggle full-time jobs with rescue operations

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They go through an intensive training schedule ahead of handling emergencies

As many as 85,000 requests. 3,000 volunteers. Covering all seven emirates. These figures roughly sum up the last four years of the UAE Rescue volunteer group.

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Founded in 2018, the group was the brainchild of Emirati Ali Al Shammari. Since the day it was formed, they have performed several rescue operations all across the UAE, including in Ras Al Khaimah’s Jebel Jais area and Fujairah, where recent floods had wreaked havoc. About 300 volunteers from the group are available at any given time. Rescuers consist of deep-sea divers, road rescue specialists, cave rescuers, first aiders and aerial search pilots from over 20 nationalities.

Volunteers are connected by the group’s app through which rescue requests are lodged. Depending on the location, the people closest to the area respond while other senior members keep track.

“If someone doesn’t respond within a set time, then other group members go to check on them,” said Al Shammari.

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Facing challenges

The group, which is a non-profit, faces several challenges on a day-to-day basis. “One is the monetary part,” said Al Shammari. “We don’t take money from people for the rescues. We are the sons of Zayed. We are doing what he has taught us to do- help people to the best of our ability. However, the fact is that the equipment is expensive. My cars have been damaged several times. In Fujariah alone, all four cars of mine got damaged. Through the years I have spent more than half a million dirhams in repairs on my cars.”

For some others, it is the act of balancing a full-time job and helping out with rescue that is difficult. “I work full time,” said Mohammed Khalifa Al-Dosari, who specializes in diving rescue for the group. “However, I am lucky to have a very supportive company. If a notification comes to me during work hours, they let me go for it.”

The most obvious challenge is the danger to life. “Some rescues are risky,” admitted Khaleel Babu. “The most recent one was in Fujairah. When cars are stuck in water and you are pulling them out, there are a lot of unknown factors there. There could be something under the water that you don’t anticipate. However, by God’s grace we have not had any mishaps yet.”

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The beginning

Hailing from Al Ain, Al Shammari was regularly rescuing people from wadis during flash floods while working in Oman. However, one heartbreaking incident during that time left a mark on his mind. “I had come back after rescuing several people from the Wadi Sharm region after the strong rains when I saw my mother crying,” he said.

“It turns out that our Omani neighbour and her children were stuck in a wadi, and they had died. What broke my heart most was that they were just a few kilometers away from where I was rescuing people. If I had known, I could have saved them. However, this was in the 1990s, the days before cell phones. So, there was no way of contacting each other.”

Years later, when he returned to the UAE, he knew that he had to do something to help people. Friends and family advised him to use social media to reach out to people. “I received 500 calls the very first day I put out my mobile phone,” he chuckled.

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“Then I knew that I needed something more streamlined.” Al Shammari then set about making the UAE Rescue app where people could log in their request along with a location pin and a photo of the incident.

Building the Team

The first people to join Al Shammari were his friends. Soon, he started extending the invite to others. However, he made sure that everyone in his team was completely vetted and trained.

Luxemburg national, Cyndi Jamila Faber, who joined the group in the summer of 2021, was one of those who went through the rigorous process. “When I first contacted the group and said I wanted to join as a volunteer, they ask me several theoretical questions,” she said.

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“Once they were satisfied that I knew what I was doing, they conducted some practical test. Some of the members would purposely get their car wheels stuck in the sand and they would observe as I pulled it out.”

Born and raised in the UAE, Cyndi has been pulling cars out of the desert ever since she got her license at 18. However, she is glad that she had to go through the tests. “When you are out on a rescue, there is no room for a mistake,” she said.

“We are out rescuing people’s lives, and you need a team that knows all the safety procedures.”

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Indian Khaleel Babu, a member since 2018, said he had undergone over two months of training at the beginning of his time in the group. “I was trained in scuba diving, swimming, powered paragliding and mountain climbing,” he said.

“I have climbed almost every mountain in the UAE and saved it on Wikiloc as several of our rescue requests come from people who get lost during hiking. So, we have to know our way around.” He shared a video of one of his training sessions.

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