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SOAKING wet, a team of rescue volunteers, sped to the craggy hills of Cugman.

There was no time to waste—lives could be in danger.

It was raining hard since evening that day, which continued all throughout much of the morning when the “call” came.

A call was made—requesting emergency assistance—reporting that a vehicle full of passengers fell off a cliff in upper Cugman.

Rescue volunteers were on alert the whole week because of the spate of flash floods in the city.

It was my first time to join a rescue operation. So when the team leader consented my joining the operation, pumped with adrenaline, I hastily boarded their Tamarraw FX.

Spine board and restraints, check. Guiding ropes? Check. First-aid kit? Check.

From the command center of the Cagayan de Oro Assistance to Life and Emergency Rescue Team (OroALERT)—with six rescue volunteers—off we went.

Along the way, I recalled the interview I had with their chief operating officer earlier that morning of Jan. 14 this year.

Heroes

Armen Cuenca, OroALERT chief operating officer and pioneer-volunteer, said he had been a volunteer with the group since its inception on Dec. 16, 1995. Their Incident Commander is Griselda Joson, city administrator, Cuenca said.

They have 25 member-volunteers now in their roster.

“Daghan man mi adtong una pero ang uban kay nanggi-abroad ang uban pud among gi-out sa group kay pila ka mga tawag dili man mo-responde. If you want to join and remain a member, you’ll have to respond to every emergency call,” Cuenca said.

OroALERT volunteers are regular city hall employees with existing functions in the different departments of city hall. Even though, being a rescue volunteer is an added task, they do not enjoy any additional financial perks.

“Kada naay mga kalamidad pareho karon (floods), pagbalik regular days—pagbalik namo sa among mga desk, daghan trabahoon nga nagahulat sa amo. Usahay initan pa gani mi sa ubang mga department head,” Cuenca said.

“Bisan makadlawonan sa pagduty, may trabaho pa pagka buntag. Bisag awayon sa mga asawa—moresponde gyud,” added Cuenca.

OroALERT volunteers are deployed regularly every “Night Café.” They also take interval duty during holidays such as Holy Week (Thursday, Friday and Sunday—baywatch) and most importantly during the eves of Christmas and New Year.

“Struggle gyud sa pagsugod pa lang namo. Pero na-anad na lang pud mi,” Cuenca said.

But Cuenca and his group of volunteers are not complaining, saying the simple “salamat” they get after a successful rescue operation is more than enough to make everything worthwhile.

“Full voluntary task gyud ni. Kapoy nga trabaho, its exhausting, pero usa ka simpleng salamat, bawi na ang tanan,” Cuenca said.

However, Cuenca added, they also enjoy simple “perks” in their task as rescuers.

“Strong ang camaraderie among the member-volunteers. Kanang usahay kay naay free meals. Pero ang pinakalami nga “perk” kay ang kanang “salamat” gyud,” Cuenca said.

Growing pains

However, Cuenca admitted humbly that they were not automatically competent in their field.

“Bag-o pa ang grupo, daghan mga medyo funny nga pagresponde. Wala pa man gud experience kaayo ang grupo adto tapos bag-o pa lang nahuman sa training busa excited kaayo moresponde dayon dali-dali,” Cuenca bared.

They were still newly formed then when received a request for help, Cuenca recalled.

“Alas 10 sa gabii na ko adto nakatulog, dawbi kay naa may tawag sa mga alas dos sa kadlawon nga naay nalumos daw. Without asking the exact location of the victim, mi-deploy na dayon ang mga kauban,” Cuenca said.

All they knew was that the victim drowned somewhere in the Macabalan area.

“Pag-abot namo sa area kay mingaw man. Pagpangutana namo sa taga didto kun asa ang nalumos didto pa diay sa unahan sa among gihunongan–likod sa firestation sa Macabalan,” Cuenca said.

Once there, there were told by bystanders that the drowning incident happened at 10 a.m. the other day.

“Wala diay urgency, kay dili na man to rescue kun di retrieval operation. Kun nahibaloan pa unta to nga detalye dili na unta matugaw ang mga volunteers, kay pwede man unta to’ng retrieval sa buntag na gyud dili kadlawon,” Cuenca recounted.

Premier local rescue group

Cuenca belied reports that the rescue group had been disbanded and was only reconvened to respond during the first flood this month.

“Wala mi sukad ma-disband. Last Jan. 3 flood we were just regrouped,” Cuenca said.

“Equipment wise–Kung within sa city lang, wala’y makalupig sa atong OroALERT,” Cuenca proudly stated.

The Philippine Paramedics Emergency Group—a 911-accredited center, Cuenca said, trained the original members of OroALERT in 1995.

The original members of OroALERT, including Cuenca, are certified emergency medical technicians. As for the new members, Cuenca said, they just re-echoed their learnings and with experience had also become competent rescuers.

OroALERT–the city’s premier emergency rescue team won the first place in the first aid and extraction event (vehicle accident scenario) in the Regional Rescue Olympics in 2007 conducted by the Office of Civil Defense (OCD 10). The rescue team botched their own record in 2007 by accomplishing the task in six minutes and 26 seconds–in 2007, they clocked the same task at eight minutes.

Aside from responding to calamities and accidents, the rescue team also gives rescue training to companies and institutions here in the city.

“We are the regular trainor to Cepalco employees, twice every year,” Cuenca said.

To the rescue

When we arrived in upper Cugman that rainy morning, we saw that a white Hilux Toyota fell into a canal wide enough for the pick-up but not in a cliff as earlier reported. There was no one on-board the pick-up.

A solitary man stood by the trees approached us and identified himself as the driver of the vehicle.

The OroALERT team leader whispered to me that the driver reeked with alcohol.

Luckily no one was badly injured. The team leader just advised the driver to stay put while they requested for a tow-truck to dislodge the pick-up in the canal.

“Pastilan, maong ning lisod aning trabaho. Usahay frustrating nga dili pud matngon mga tao sa safety. Maayo lang kun naay makaresponde dayon. Dawbi kun sa pangpang to sila nahulog, daot ang ilang jamming,” the team leader said.

After the “rescue” we went back to the command center (city tourism hall) and there they again patiently wait for yet another call for help.

(This piece is a first-person account of behind-the-scenes rescue efforts of people who are rarely mentioned among the heroes in the floods that ravaged Cagayan de Oro in 2009.)

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