From Congo firefighter to saving lives with LifeFlight

Brett, one of the Aviation Operations Coordinators at LifeFlight’s Coordination Centre (LCC), worked as a firefighter in South Africa for 15 years before he decided to take on a very different and unique challenge.

Signing on for a one year contract with the United Nations in 2002, Brett was sent to the Congo to train the locals as firefighters and paramedics.

Brett took on this contract during the midst of the second Congo War and was stationed at a small town on the equator called Kisangani, one of the many towns that remained under rebel control.

The training and living facilities in Kisangani were primitive at best and much of the locals’ training took place at the two neighbouring airports, Simi-Simi and Bangoka.

Brett worked at Bangoka, an airport surrounded by 50,000 rebels armed with AK-47’s they weren’t afraid to use.

Brett, who now calls the Gold Coast home, recalls many times when training exercises and aircraft refueling  extended beyond their 6pm curfew. Under the cover of darkness the rebels would flock to the airport surrounding Brett and his fellow UN workers, cocking their AK’s in a show of intimidation.

“Due to us working for the UN, I don’t think they would have shot us, but I for one, didn’t take a chance and got out of there in my fire truck as quickly as I could when the rebels showed up,” Brett said.

Training the locals proved to be almost as challenging as these rebel negotiations.

The ravages of war had left few fire training resources or knowledge for Brett and the UN, which resulted in some unconventional and innovative training methods like showing them the movie Backdraft.

“My wife contacted the company that produced Backdraft and explained that we needed it for training purposes, and they sent her a copy…..we played the movie so locals could see what fire was like,” he said.

One morning as Brett was getting ready for work, he heard gunfire in the distance. Even though Kisangani remained under rebel control, gunfire and fighting didn’t happen that often.

A local radio presenter had called on the townspeople to gather their weapons, picks, hoes and bush knives to chase the rebels out of the town, even though the rebels’ armoury included tanks.

As bullets started to fly outside Brett’s window he instinctively ducked for cover. For the remainder of the morning Brett and his fellow UN colleagues were pinned behind their bullet hole riddled walls and broken windows.

“At least they knew how to shoot straight, thank goodness,” recalls Brett.

A one year contract proved long enough.

Brett and his wife Anita then made their way to the UK and then New Zealand.  He joined LifeFlight on Valentine’s day 2011, when LifeFlight’s Operation Centre was based in New Zealand.  When the Operations Centre moved to Australia in 2012, Brett accepted a position in Australia.

Brett’s time in the Congo taught him about resilience, initiative and how to work effectively under pressure – key skills to prepare him for the challenges he now faces every day in LifeFlight’s Coordination Centre (LCC).

Brett and his team members coordinate LifeFlight’s fleet of RACQ LifeFlight Rescue helicopters andair ambulance jets.

The tasking process is complex but almost six years in the job has given Brett a wealth of experience.

Retrieval Services Queensland, the air-medical dispatch center receives the initial triple-zero emergency call and makes contact with Brett and his co-workers in LCC.

As a LifeFlight Aviation Operations Coordinator, Brett is responsible for tasking the helicopters and jets from their appropriate bases, which includes notifying the crew, organising fuel and tracking the aircraft’s flight paths.

While the RACQ LifeFlight Rescue helicopter missions are usually more time-critical, it’s LifeFlight’s three fixed-wing jets, also sponsored by RACQ, that require the most coordination.  

LifeFlight’s jets serve as Air Ambulances for the critically ill and injured. In the last year alone LifeFlight has coordinated 245 Air Ambulance retrievals, 98 of them international tasks. These flights require substantial logistical organisation with LifeFlight’s coordination operators such as Brett right at the heart of these complex processes.

From updating medical teams through to organising visas and security clearances, and even ordering in-flight food, Brett and the entire  LCC team work together to help provide the highest quality of safe, rapid response care, 24/7, 365 days of the year.

 “Working in the Congo prepared me for everything and anything,” Brett said.

“Knowing that anything could happen at any time ensures that you walk in with your eyes wide open and you don’t get shocked by anything.”

Whether it’s been working as a firefighter in South Africa, training locals in the Congo or coordinating LifeFlight’s rescue missions, Brett has always been helping people.

The stress of the job is worth it when Brett knows he’s helped to save lives.

“I like that we are able to help people in need,” he said.

“Like a fireman, people call LifeFlight when they need help. When people really need help, we are always going to be there to assist them.”

You can continue to support Brett and the team at LifeFlight by donating today here