No sense of urgency in an emergency

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Indolent response systems force city residents to fend for themselves

A Vinasun taxi that fell into a sinkhole on Ho Chi Minh City's Le Van Sy Street on September 14, 2010. It took concerned agencies four hours to reach the site and begin getting the vehicle out.

Tran Thanh Binh lay screaming in pain, his legs crushed by an overturned truck.

Dozens of people nearby rushed to the accident spot on Ung Van Khiem Street in Ho Chi Minh City with crowbars, tree trunks and any other implement they could get their hands on to try and prise Binh out from beneath the truck.

It took about an hour to get him out, and by then Binh had fainted. The residents rushed him to the hospital, but he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Traffic police officers and rescue vehicles arrived at the accident site only after Binh had been taken away.

As tragic as this March 22 incident was, the greater tragedy is that the late arrival of police and rescue forces in dire emergency situations is not an exception in HCMC.

In many cases of road accidents, mishaps or street fights, HCMC police and concerned rescue forces show up when it is too late, leaving residents with no choice but manage things on their own.

At around 4 p.m. on September 14, 2010, Nguyen Van Tinh, a driver for the Vinasun Taxi Company, was driving a taxi on Le Van Sy Street in District 3 when the taxi fell into a sinkhole.

A sizeable section of the street suddenly collapsed under the weight of the 7-seater.

Tinh jumped out before his vehicle sank into the watery sludge. Terrified and helpless, Tinh called his relatives and friends for help. Nearby residents called authorities to no avail.

It was not until 8 p.m. that inspectors of traffic and public works showed up. One hour later, the cab was towed away.

During the five or so hours that the cab was stuck in the hole, the narrow street experienced a severe traffic jam.

Citizens have repeatedly noted that the response from concerned agencies is not just late, there is also no sense of urgency shown by the latter.

Lukewarm reaction

Many residents say that when they telephone the police hotline 113 or a local police station's numbers, the reaction from officers on duty is lukewarm and uninterested.

In mid-February, a group of students living in a hired apartment in District 7's Le Van Luong Street called local police to report a robbery.

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No one answered the phone the first time. On their second attempt, a police officer named Vuong Van Nho answered the phone.

After Nho arrived at the apartment, he repeatedly yelled at the students, blaming their carelessness for the robbery.

When a student asked Nho if there was any chance they could get their property back, he snapped: "Who can tell? I am not a saint."

The repeated indifference shown by police officers also deterred Nguyen Thi Tai, resident of an apartment building in District 3, from reporting littering acts by other residents living on higher floors.

"The more I complain, the more they litter," she said.

"I have reported the issue to the local police many times, but nothing has been done."

On the afternoon of October 11, 2011, four men pretended to be strangers waiting at an ATM booth in District 1, when 33-year-old Nguyen Thi Thanh Thuan entered it after parking and locking her motorbike on the sidewalk.

Two of the men then stood at the booth door to trap Thuan while two others unlocked the bike. They left with the bike even though the woman called 113 for help.

Thuan said police with the HCMC's rapid response force told her to file a report at the local police station as she helplessly watched the men drive her bike away.

After Thuan informed local newspapers about the police officer who took the call, the latter confirmed his response, saying he "did not hear the panic in the caller's voice and thus wrongly assumed that the matter was done for a while."

The identity of the officer has not been released.

Hoang Thi Lien, a street vendor in HCMC, said she would never bother to report robberies to the police based on her own experiences.

Early this year, when Lien was pulling her CD handcart on a street in District 8, two men on a bicycle pretended to be buyers and grabbed the CDs.

When Lien tried to chase them, two other men grabbed the remaining CDs on the handcart.

Lien cried for help but no passers-by on the crowded street stopped.

"It has happened to me before," she said. The first time, she reported the robbery to ward police, but received no response.

Since then she does not bother to report anything, Lien said.

Low awareness

A majority of residents do not know that 114 is the number they should call in case of fire or other emergencies, 113 for the rapid response police force and 115 for ambulance services.

A 2010 study by the Trung Vuong Emergency Hospital found two thirds of HCMC residents do not know about the telephone number 115.

Dr. Huynh Thi Thanh Trang of the hospital's emergency department said more men seemed to know about 115 than women.

More people aged between 15 and 30, office workers, civil servants and students, know about the service than those in other groups, she said.

The survey also found that most people who do know about 115 learnt about it from newspapers, TV or the Internet.

Trang said that even people who know about the service prefer to take their relatives to the hospital themselves.

"They are afraid the congested roads might delay the ambulance. Many take a taxi to the hospital."

The hospital explained that when people call 115 from the city, they are connected to the emergency department and an ambulance dispatched. If the call is from outside the city, the hospital calls the nearest district hospital to seek help.

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