It was September, 2010, when history was made and the future set, with the laying of the foundation stone for the new Emergency Coordination Centre for the Orihuela Costa.
The pomp and ceremony of the day was marked by the burying of a ”time capsule”, with a variety of local newspapers, Spanish and English, a selection of coins, a CD and certificate detailing the project signed by the two main dignitaries of the day, the Mayoress of Orihuela, Monica Lorente, and the Interior Minister of the Valencian Community, Serafín Castellano.
However, the day didn´t quite go as smoothly as planned, as a group of protestors from the CLARO political group attended to raise awareness of the failed promises of the then government, and the lack of emergency and security coverage that the coastal zone received.
The new centre was to house the Local Police, Guardia Civil, National Police, Fire, ambulance and Civil Protection services in a building with superb access to all the main road networks in the area. The centre will also act as a communications hub, where emergency and none emergency calls will be routed to the relevant bodies for a smoother and faster response.
The six thousand square metre plot featured nearly five thousand metres of floor space in order to better serve the citizens of the area from a central point. At an overall cost of over three million euro, it represented a bold but much needed investment in improving the security and safety of everyone living, working in or visiting the area.
However, since the fine times of 2010, the world quickly changed and that centre, along with many other projects, still stands in its skeletal form, a beacon many believe of the neglect of one of the fastest growing areas along the Costa Blanca, and a token that highlights how one area which brings in a third of taxable revenue, falls short to the investments lavished on the city funded by the residents on the coast.
Whereas the area has continued to thrive, even through the austere times, the population has largely been maintained, unlike neighbouring town such as Torrevieja which has seen an almost mass exodus as tens of thousands of people have left, the Orihuela Costa is just as populated as it ever was.
Part of the success in maintaining the population figures has been attributed to the Zenia Boulevard shopping centre. The largest retail space in the area, in its second year of operation, 2013, the Boulevard had already topped 11 million visitors. In fact, the Zenia Boulevard is now so popular it has almost become a city in its own right. Perhaps not housing residents within the complex, the surroundings have boomed with property, and within the workings of the centre there is a constant operation, around the clock, bringing in goods, food, people, all set to spend their money, and then return to where they came from, all of which adds to the problems of both logistics on already paralysed roads, and the security that these visitors and workers perhaps don´t demand, but certainly require.
That need for security comes in many forms. The risk of fire is amplified, as is the need for law enforcement and crime prevention, and the need for medical assistance in the event of an emergency. With so many people often concentrated into one area, the risks are greater than normal, and whereas the staff at the centre may well be trained to deal with emergency and first response, where does the assistance come from in the event of anything happening that requires the emergency services to attend?
Had the emergency coordination centre been completed, they would all have been on the doorstep, ready to respond to emergencies, not only at the Zenia Boulevard, but also to serve the tens of thousands of regular residents. Now, the nearest fire crews are in Torrevieja. If they are already dealing with an emergency then assistance is summoned from Almoradí, or Elche, sometimes even as far away as Alicante.
Ambulances are equally fragmented. There is a paramedic unit based near Cabo Roig, but it is not a full-time service. In fact, cuts to the health service have been making the headlines throughout the same period. In June 2013, further cuts were announced to the ambulance service, with the axe falling on many locations from July of that year.
The report attempted to show the cuts in a positive light, detailing how there would be 45 SAMU paramedic vehicles covering the whole of the Valencia region. Most of them, 35 in total, would operate on a 24-hour schedule, whereas the other 10 will cover additional shifts of 12 hours each day. In addition to the 45 SAMU ambulances, the remaining fleet of 465 vehicles in total is made up of 100 basic life support ambulances and 312 TNA´s, which are used for transporting patients and offer no medical assistance.
The Valencia region has an estimated population of 5.1 million people, spread over 23,255 square kilometres of land. To put those figures into context, within Greater London in the UK, London Ambulance Service, which covers the emergency response needs of the 8.1 million people of their 1,572 square kilometre area, operates around 900 ambulances and, in addition, can deploy around 100 rapid-response units in various cars, motorcycles or bicycles.
Despite warnings that those cuts would cost lives, little was actually done to reverse the decision. Tragically, there were numerous reports of people waiting for ambulances that either failed to arrive or were too late. In July 2015, a three month old baby died at the Altabix health centre in Elche, with many people blaming the 20 minute wait for an emergency ambulance as a contributing factor in the death. The ambulance service disputed the claim and said that the ambulance attended in just 12 minutes.
In December of 2013, a doctor filed an official complaint against both the emergency medical coordination service and the Ministry of Health of the Junta de Andalucía, after a delay in an ambulance arriving at the scene of a road traffic incident, citing an “excessive and unacceptable” delay in emergency crews attending the scene. After multiple and repeated calls to the emergency services, the doctor was told that the nearest ambulance was already on a call and the closest was some distance away. The victim, a motorcyclist who had suffered multiple trauma, died at the scene, having waited over 30 minutes for an ambulance, despite that incident occurring just 200 metres from a medical centre.
Earlier that year, in July, in the wake of the Santiago de Compostela train crash, a number of questions were raised regarding cuts to the healthcare service and the impact that those cuts had on this major incident. The government said that the cuts played no part but the 300 volunteer off-duty nurses, 200 fire fighters and 500 citizens who responded to calls to help argued otherwise.
One of the biggest questions at the time was why the nearest hospital to the disaster was bypassed and could not be used to treat the injured. A number of unions are now questioning why the emergency coordination teams made the decision to transfer patients to a private facility, rather than the public one which was closest. The Hospital Medico Quirurxico de Conxo was closest to the crash site, had been renovated only a few years ago, and was fully equipped with the latest technology, in its five units and operating theatres, trauma units, surgical wards and more, but the hospital had been closed, due to cuts to the health service. Effectively mothballed, it was capable of opening and operating, with empty beds and staff waiting to offer their help.
In Orihuela, it could be argued that the fact that the emergency centre is left unfinished is not part of these cuts. In fact, the money was allocated when the project started in 2010, and that money remained available. However, with the company contracted to complete the construction falling into bankruptcy, there is no question that the project was a victim of the financial crisis, but that money which was allocated could still have been spent, and the project could still have been completed, if the regional and local governments actually followed on with their promised commitments and made it happen.
More recently, on the Orihuela Costa, the lack of emergency cover has once again been highlighted with the tragic death of Keith Wightman in early November. Whilst seemingly healthy, Keith was playing football and suddenly collapsed. Although nobody who witnessed the scene would question the professionalism of the emergency crew which attended, the fact that the ambulance was not based on the Orihuela Costa at the time would at the very least add to the doubt of whether Keith is another victim of that neglect, raising the question once again as to why the centre is not finished an operating.
Now, many of those protesters who campaigned at the site in 2010 are set to return once again, as the question is brought back into the public limelight on the 12th of December.
CLARO has once again organised a peaceful protest to highlight the need for the centre´s completion. Whereas CLARO may well be a political group, they believe that this campaign should have all party support. After all, there are no politics when it comes to an individual needing lifesaving assistance.
CLARO themselves say how the empty shell stands as a symbol of the neglect of the interests of Orihuela Costa by the local government of Orihuela and the regional government of Valencia. The need for these basic services is not academic, they say. The local press report several recent cases of delays of 40 minutes in the arrival of ambulances which have contributed to the deaths of local residents. We all need an efficient ambulance service. The fire brigade responsible for Orihuela Costa is located in Torrevieja and the fire crews are not familiar with the sprawling concrete jungle of Orihuela Costa. The local police do not have an office open 24 hours because the Playa Flamenca office of the Town Hall closes when the officials finish their day at 3 p.m. The local police are located in the basement of the Playa Flamenca office of the Town Hall and they could easily place a police reception desk at the entry of the Town Hall when the local officials go home for the day. We could have a 24 hour police station immediately. They could also fight with determination the need for the Valencia government to re-tender and complete the skeleton Emergency Services Centre. But they do not take us seriously.
The protest will take place on Saturday the 12th of December at 11:00. There will be a number of guest speakers on hand, some of whom have been personally affected by the lack of the centre. The group encourages everybody to come along and make a presence felt, because a united front will really show the need for these basic services, before a tragedy befalls on the area that raises the more serious question of whether death or serious injury could have been avoided.