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Red Cross prepares for Sierra Leone elections

15 November 2012

The Red Cross has launched a ‘999’-style emergency hotline in Sierra Leone ahead of elections on 17 November and is ready to respond should any civil unrest occur.

Members of the public, anywhere in the country, can report any crisis through the Sierra Leone Red Cross hotline, such as a flood or cholera outbreak, as well as incidents of civil unrest. The hotline, which is the first of its kind in the country, is supported by the British Red Cross with funding provided by BT.

The Red Cross passes the information on to the Office of National Security’s disaster management department which leads on the response, co-ordinating with other organisations, including the Red Cross. The hotline, Airtel 300, means emergency teams can be dispatched quickly to affected areas as a crisis unfolds, or even take action before disaster strikes.

Presidential, parliamentary and local elections

A decade on from civil war, the people of Sierra Leone have worked hard at building peace, and the country is making progress in terms of economic growth and development. However the majority of people still live on less than $1.25 a day and there is mass youth unemployment.

Christine Tokar, British Red Cross west Africa programme support manager, said: “The Sierra Leone Red Cross has been helping communities heal their rifts and build peace for more than twelve years. Communities are keen to protect the gains that have been made and a lot of work has been done to prepare for peaceful elections.”

Emanuel Tommy, secretary general, said: “The elections will be the litmus test for our growth to democracy. I’m not sure how things will play out, but what I do know is that young people will play a key role in the future of our country and we are doing all we can to influence and support the leaders of tomorrow.”

Election preparation

The Sierra Leone Red Cross disaster management team has prepared plans and contingencies for the elections, looking at potential flash points and considering various scenarios. The branches have been equipped with extra first aid kits and stretchers, and there are 54 first aid teams across the country. The volunteers are on standby after going through first aid refresher training to update their knowledge and skills.

Constant Kargbo, Sierra Leone Red Cross disaster management co-ordinator, said: “Even though the situation is relatively calm, last week there was a small confrontation in Freetown between parties with posters being torn down, that almost resulted in a riot.

“But at least with the telephones and VHF radio equipment provided by BT, we are well prepared for getting information quickly from communities to the Office of National Security if the need arises, which will enable a prompt response.”

Emergency hotline

When the UK’s ‘999’ number was launched 75 years ago, it was the world’s first emergency phone number. But until the Red Cross launched its hotline earlier this year, Sierra Leone had no equivalent national emergency service to report major incidents or disasters. If a major incident occurred in the capital’s slums or in remote rural areas there was limited outside assistance available and small-scale problems could quickly escalate into major emergencies – the hotline means help can now arrive faster.

Constant said: “I did a night shift on the hotline last Saturday. In Kabala it had been raining heavily throughout the night. At four in the morning I got a call about an area that had flooded and four mud houses had collapsed on the families occupying them. I contacted our programme administrator for the area who went straight away and confirmed the event and took details that we passed on to the Office of National Security for immediate response.

“Another incident happened in Port Loko while candidates were being chosen during the pre-election process. Some people were not satisfied with the outcome and four houses were set on fire. A police officer responding to the scene had trouble calling for back up and so he called our hotline to report the issue. Again we passed the information on and the Office of National Security took action.”

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