Does NEMA’s helicopter only serve the rich and ignore the rest?

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  • 2024-02-20
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Does NEMA’s helicopter only serve the rich and ignore the rest?

been more than two years since our country opened a special air search and rescue unit. Within the framework of the project “Establishment of an aerial search and rescue unit and supply of helicopters to the emergency organization of Mongolia” was implemented within the framework of the financial agreement between the governments of Mongolia and France, the 111th Air Search and Rescue Unit under the jurisdiction of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) was established at the Buyant-Ukhaa airport of the 21st khoroo of Khan-Uul District. It was officially opened in September 2023 after more than a year of operation.

Within the framework of the project, France provided three Airbus EC-145 special purpose helicopters and one training helicopter to the emergency services of Mongolia from 2021, and trained pilots, engineers, and rescuers. This was a great timely support for the emergency services of Mongolia, which has no special air search and rescue units and dedicated helicopters and has been providing aid and services by “begging” the planes of military organizations during disasters and accidents. The 111th unit was able to use these helicopters to quickly organize emergency and special mission flights for training and preparation, search and rescue, and emergency medical assistance. Unfortunately, it has recently been clearly noticed that the emergency organizations have created bureaucracy and discriminated against citizens in aiding and services accordingly.

In January, when a young man was seriously injured in a road accident in Khanbogd soum of Umnugovi Province, his family contacted NEMA to take him to Ulaanbaatar city by a helicopter and was responded with “No”. Therefore, the family launched a fundraising campaign among citizens to collect the 44 million MNT needed to rent the helicopter. People with influence in social media and many followers actively spread information about the campaign, and as soon as it became a problem, NEMA started to act. One day after the information was spread online, Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the State Special Commission S.Amarsaikhan announced that the person who had the accident will be brought to the city by helicopter. He said, “I have contacted the family of the victim who is in serious condition, and informed them that a helicopter will fly tomorrow at 08:30 a.m. The two-way flight will take more than seven hours, so the expert team 
believes that it cannot be done today. The Mongolian government will do everything necessary to save even one citizen’s life.” As stated, the victim was brought to Ulaanbaatar on January 16.

Later, his wife said, “The flight was free. However, the fuel cost of 10 million MNT must be paid by February 19. So far, more than 2 million MNT have been collected from citizens. The only breadwinner of the family is on the verge of death, so we have little chance to pay this bill.” The initial 44 million MNT requested was the sum of the helicopter rental and fuel expenses. The family was able to bring their family member to the city by bringing the problem to the attention of the public, receiving donations of 25 million MNT for the flight, and falling into debt of 19 million MNT.

According to the website of the 111th Air Search and Rescue Unit, injured or seriously ill people who cannot be transported by land and who are at high risk of death are transported by helicopter, provided with first aid and services, and taken to the next level of medical facilities. When the citizen who crashed at Khanbogd soum met this “criterion”, why did the emergency services answer, “Not possible” and wasted time. If it was possible to reduce the cost of the plane, why did they initially say a big number of “44 million MNT” and “threatened” people who could not afford it. Why was it moved two days later when the flight could’ve been available on the day of the request or the next day? There’s so many doubtful and unclear questions.

There was a similar case in July 2021. It is said that when the family asked the police and emergency services to find three women and one man who went missing after going to Ereen River in Bugant soum of Selenge Province to gather nuts, they were told that they could rent a search helicopter at a high price. A joint team of emergency and armed forces moved to the area with a helicopter only after the family and close relatives addressed the media and launched a fundraising campaign. Unlike at that time, Mongolia now has an air search and rescue unit and a special-purpose ship. However, citizens say that services are still not accessible and bureaucratic. There are quite a few people who suffered by not receiving necessary medical services in a timely manner because of being told “No” by emergency management agencies and asked for “large” sums of money despite having serious dire injuries.

A woman recently wrote on social media that a citizen of Khuvsgul Province, who fell from a cattle yard and seriously injured his neck and back, was “stuck” in his local general hospital because she could not get a diagnosis due to lack of money to order a helicopter. She said, “I want to take my brother to the city, but he cannot be transported horizontally on an ordinary plane. When it comes to ordering a helicopter to take him to the National Traumatology and Orthopedics Research Center, we can’t afford it. The cost of fuel alone is 10 million MNT.” When the relatives of the person who was seriously injured in an accident in Bayankhongor Province asked the emergency services to bring them to the city, they said, “a big number” and did not act. So, they collected about 20 million MNT and brought the person to the hospital by helicopter, but the person died without sustaining their injuries. In light of all this, Deputy Prime Minister S.Amarsaikhan’s words, “The Mongolian government will do everything necessary to save even one citizen's life,” seem to be empty words and promises.

I contacted the Air Search and Rescue Unit 111 and NEMA to get detailed information about who the emergency helicopter serves, how much it costs, and how the government works to protect the lives and health of its citizens, but they did not say anything specific about it. Everyone said, “We follow the orders approved by the Deputy Prime Minister.” The Deputy Prime
Minister and Chairman of the State Special Commission has approved the method of benchmarking in 2022. According to the press officer of NEMA, the costs and discounts vary depending on the distance from the flight destination. According to relevant laws and regulations, the cost of special duty flights aimed at combating disasters and dangerous phenomena, providing emergency medical aid, and performing the work and duties of organizations implementing government functions is to be borne by the ordering party. Basically, depending on the distance of the flight, the state discounts and bears a certain percentage of the cost.

According to the reports of citizens who applied to the State Special Commission and received such services, at least 10-20 million MNT is required to order a helicopter. When the discounted price of air transport for transporting within 650 km away
from Ulaanbaatar city is 10 million MNT, and the full price is 44 million MNT, it can be seen who these are really for. When you think about how the average salary of citizens is and how many of them have lying this much cash around, it’s concerning what will happen to someone who becomes seriously ill or injured, who has no one to turn to, who is powerless, and cannot ask for donations or help. From here, it seems that the “special” helicopter is intended to aid and service only those who can afford it. When this is the reality, ministers and leaders spread information and advertise it as if they were transporting citizens for free on a special duty flight and spending money of their own.

There are currently about 40 small aircrafts registered in Mongolia. As helicopter services have developed and expanded in recent years, more and more people are booking them. Even people living in the eastern part of the city around Gachuurt and Mongol Shiltgeen are complaining and criticizing the fact that the sound of helicopters is often heard. However, finding a “special” helicopter for people who have been affected by disasters and accidents, or those with serious health diagnoses, is a rare privilege and a difficult challenge, just like holding the hand of God.