It was almost 10 pm when Andrea Montenegro, Lighthouse Relief’s Field Officer on Lesvos, received a phone call from a local fisherman, Costas, alerting her to a refugee boat landing on the shores of Skala Sikamineas. As usual, there was no time to wait, and Montenegro responded swiftly, contacting the UNHCR and rescue teams to help the wet and cold arrivals, preparing dry clothes and beds at Stage 2 since Moria was already closed for the night.
Andrea and the Lighthouse Relief staff are part of a task force of NGO members, volunteers and medics, together with the locals, in the small fishing village of Skala Sikamineas. One and a half year ago, the island saw a record number of arriving refugees and Lighthouse Relief formed to give emergency response and coordinate efforts in the area. The team is still there, on standby 24 hours a day, ready to respond at any moment to rescue and assist refugees arriving on the north shore of the Greek island of Lesvos.
The month of March kicked off with a nighttime landing, bringing 45 new arrivals to the shores of Lesvos. Like many landings that we have assisted in 1,5 years year of working on Lesvos, this one occurred under cover of darkness, when many smugglers set out from Turkey for the Greek shores.
Time is of the essence: we must work together to provide a swift, effective response to every rescue and boat landing. The 45 new arrivals we met on March 1st were wet and cold after having been in the water for a long time. We acted quickly, working to prevent any chance of hypothermia, the largest threat to arriving refugees. We coordinated immediate medical care, provided emergency blankets and dry clothes. Though shaken up and cold from a long journey, thankfully, they were safe. However, in our time on Lesvos we have seen many emergency situations in which several boats are in the water, and people overboard need immediate assistance to prevent drowning or hypothermia. In these cases, it’s crucial to act fast, coordinating responsibilities without a moment's hesitation. But this takes practice. That’s why we have regular mass casualty incident coordination meetings and trainings.
Together with our partners on Lesvos we had a rigorous training exercise on March 3rd in our home base of Skala Sikamineas. With Proactiva, Refugee Rescue, WAHA, and the Hope Project volunteers, we embarked on a four part training exercise to test our effectiveness in responding to an emergency situation. In order to make the training as realistic as possible the exercise was carried out at night, the time when most real life rescue operations take place.
Phase One: Spotting Lesvos-Bound Vessels
Each night, Lighthouse Relief volunteers carry out a 9-hour spotting shift with thermal vision binoculars at Korakas between midnight and 9a.m. Most rescue operations start with a phone call or a pair of binoculars. When a suspected refugee vessel is spotted, the spotting teams alert the rescue boats and guide them to the refugee vessels. In Phase One of the training, the "spotting teams" directed rescue boats to specific areas to respond to multiple refugee vessels. The training was as realistic as possible, with both "refugee vessels" and rescue vessels in the water. Each spotting team then directed a rescue boat to the refugee boats.
“The spotting training was really successful,” said Ivory Hackett-Evans, Lighthouse Relief’s Korakas night watch coordinator and Lesvos camp manager. “There was no confusion, and every single boat was reached within 5 minutes with no mistakes.”
Phase Two: Rescue at Sea
In any mass casualty incident at sea, knowing how to recognize needs of victims is extremely important. Smugglers boats carrying refugees from Turkey are all too often flimsy, and cannot withstand strong waters. Sometimes, life jackets that smugglers provide are counterfeit. Because of this, we've often seen passengers who have gone overboard and need immediate help.
Phase Two involved sea rescue training for the two rescue boat crews, simulating a situation with people in the water. Three volunteers were taken out to act as overboard casualties and were given instructions to behave differently with different symptoms. The teams practiced how to respond and prioritize the rescue effort depending on the perceived needs of each individual.
Phase Three: When Boats Reach the Shore
"Landing Team to Goji." Most Lighthouse Relief staff and volunteers on Lesvos are all too familiar with this phrase, signalling that we must depart to provide a warm, coordinated welcome to a refugee landing. Phase Three of the Mass Casualty Incident training prepared us for this very important moment, the landing, which involves physically unloading people from the rescue boats and handing them over to the landing teams. It is extremely important to act quickly but calmly to make sure not cause any extra injuries if someone is hurt. We also ensure that parents are not separated from their children. People must feel safe and welcomed.
Phase 4: A Warm, Coordinated Welcome for Arriving Refugees
After refugees are safely on dry land, we attend to the needs of each casualty. As they disembark from the rescue boat, the landing coordinator carries out a quick assessment of each person’s needs and injuries. A WAHA doctor and nurse are on hand to provide immediate care, and refugees are assigned to specific color coded areas based on severity of their symptoms. For this phase, fast, efficient communication is key.
“None of us could do this without collaboration - everyone has to work as one”, said Ivory Hackett-Evans, Lighthouse Relief’s camp manager and night watch coordinator in Lesvos.
On Lesvos, we have been incredibly lucky to work with so many different partners, each committed to ensuring the safety and dignified treatment of refugees. If there is one thing we all learned from the locals of Skala Sikamineas and our partners while working and living on Lesvos, it is the importance of collaboration.