You find a child wheezing from pneumonia and weak from malnutrition. She needs a doctor. Her disease is curable, but only if she gets treatment quickly. The nearest hospital is miles away. You do not have a car.
In the U.S. many people’s next move is obvious: call 911. But in many places around the world, that simply isn’t an option. According to the World Health Organization, in most countries at least a quarter of the population lacks access to an ambulance service. In the poorest communities, of course, the number without access to emergency medical services of any kind tends to be much higher. This is the dilemma Beacon, a project developed by nonprofit Trek Medics, hopes to solve.
“Imagine if Mayor Bloomberg came out tomorrow in the newspaper saying we’re cutting 911 services because we don’t have money in the budget,” says Trek Medics founder Jason Friesen. “Nobody would stand for that. But that’s how it is in most of the developing world.” Friesen, a paramedic, founded Trek Medics in 2009 with aims of improving emergency medical systems in developing countries.
Friesen, 33, experienced something similar to the story above while working disaster relief in Haiti in 2010. A woman brought her sick, 11-month-old baby to him pleading for help. He spent the next three hours driving through rubble and traffic. Vehicles broke down one after the other as he tried to find a hospital. The child survived, but the experience was harrowing enough to get Friesen thinking about solutions.
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Enter Beacon. The service is an emergency-response-dispatch system, a sort of crowdsourced 911. Here’s how it works: when an emergency is called in, rather than send an alert to an ambulance awaiting orders, the service sends a mass text message to drivers in the area who have signed up to be on the Beacon network. These drivers are not likely medical personal, but rather individuals with access to a car, truck or motorcycle. They’ve received basic first-aid training, but their real object is to get the sick or injured to a doctor as fast as possible. You might call it Uber for disaster zones.
“This is above all a community-development project. It comes down to the simple question of what do we do for those people who are hurt and unable to care of themselves,” Friesen explains. Beacon is only possible because of the spread of mobile technology, especially in the developing world, over the past decade. A 2012 World Bank report concluded that more people now have mobile phones in developing countries than in richer nations.
In many poor countries, taxi drivers, commercial-truck drivers and private individuals often fill the role of the paramedic where ambulances are not available. Beacon’s aim is to strengthen the informal networks that already exist. Trek Medics is currently testing Beacon in Haiti and raising money on Indiegogo to expand into Panama and Cambodia, with the hope of launching a full system in six months at the earliest; at press time, with a few days to go, the group is nearly halfway to its $75,000 goal.
The plan is to continue to spread through the developing world, testing the system to ensure it meets the needs of each location. “You can’t release version 2.0 a month after 1.0. There are no do-overs in emergency response,” he says. “We’ve got to really put this thing through the ringer.”