In 2006, Hong Kong Fire Services Department's Ambulance Command received a total of 575,666 ambulance calls. In spite of the astounding number, an impressive 92.7 per cent of emergency ambulance calls were handled within a 12-minute response time, in line with the department's performance pledge. Delivering such an unyielding promise to save lives takes more than technologically advanced ambulances. It is the dedication and specialist skills of ambulance officers and ambulancemen, which merit celebration.
"This is a rewarding and worthwhile profession," says Paul Yeung, principal ambulanceman, Ambulance Command, Hong Kong Fire Services Department (FSD).
Mr Yeung joined the Ambulance Command in 1979, a time when he couldn't see himself in a sedentary career. "I wanted a job that would bring me closer to people — one that would match my personality and active lifestyle," he says, adding that his ability to care for the needy has always been instinctive.
Many of Mr Yeung colleagues were similarly drawn. Ambulanceman Wong Tsz-sum's passion for the profession burned at a young age. As an adolescent, Mr Wong was unfortunate enough to be involved in several road accidents. Miraculously he sustained no serious injuries but his desire to help the needy stemmed from these earlier brushes with danger.
After completing a diploma in building services engineering in 2002, Mr Wong, who was a former member of the Civil Aid Service Hong Kong, subsequently joined the force and soon discovered the job was a dream come true. "I can't boast numerous academic qualifications. However, my current job offers a wealth of possibilities and has proved a meaningful career," he adds.
His fellow ambulanceman Leung Wing-shun shares the same enthusiasm. Equipped with a bachelor's degree in applied physics and a postgraduate diploma in pre-hospital and emergency care, Mr Leung initially became a secondary school teacher. Feeling disappointed with the job prospects, he decided on an alternative career drawing on his certification as a paramedic and experience as a volunteer for St John's Ambulance in Hong Kong. "My previous job didn't provide me with the job security or satisfaction that this one does, so when I spotted the chance to join the Ambulance Command I sent in my application without the slightest hint of hesitation."
A typical 24-hour shift starts at 8:30am and is packed with challenges. Apart from a prompt response to emergency calls, scheduled training and learning programmes are part of professional life for both ambulance officers and ambulancemen.
According to Mr Wong, the job is by no means easy, particularly for new recruits. "It takes some getting used to," he says. "Certain situations can get you down but you must keep a cool head in order to carry out your duties. You must give your best and comply with all necessary procedures because even the simplest mistakes can potentially cost lives."
Mr Yeung agrees, recalling one of his early duties: "A suicidal person tried to jump off a building. Due to the lack of life saving equipment then, I had to grab and hold him down with my own weight. The experience was nerve-wracking."
In the public's eyes, paramedics often appear to be quick thinking, life-saving action heroes. However, Mr Leung stresses, the profession is driven by a great sense of mission, not glory. In order to promote increased public awareness of the emergency ambulance service and the extensive community role it plays, the Ambulance Command regularly organises promotional events such as the Ambulance Service Campaign 2007 to be held in Kwai Chung.
For any emergency service teams, ongoing training is essential, even for experienced personnel like Mr Yeung who holds a bachelor's degree in health science, and has been certified as an FSD preceptor, AED (automated external defibrillator) instructor and LMA (laryngeal mask airway) provider.
Today, new recruits must undergo 26 weeks of comprehensive training. "This enables us to do infinitely more for people in distress," says Mr Yeung who received only eight weeks of training when he signed up 27 years ago.
"A capable ambulanceman combines academic theories with specialist skills and knowledge accumulated from experience," he says, noting that to complement promotion, skills in team leading and management are essential. "We must keep refreshing our skills and continue to build on our capabilities," he advises.
Aside from physical strength, a person's character and attitude are of equal significance. Key attributes such as integrity, compassion and team spirit are also invaluable for successful team functioning.
However, the job may not be everybody's cup of tea, Mr Yeung remarks. "It truly depends on an individual's aspirations," he says. "You must enjoy your job and excel at your profession to succeed because our line of duty literally touches people's lives."