UAE's modest aerial lifesaver Eddie Callachan, the 'dope-on-a-rope guy'

Whether rescuing families from burning rooftops or locating lost seafarers, South African Eddie Callachan is an indispensable member of the country's developing safety net.

United Arab Emmirates - Abu Dhabi - Sep 16 - 2008 : A member of the UAE Air Force rescues a young man in an helicopter from the roof of a building in Airport road during a fire.  ( Jaime Puebla / The National )
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ABU DHABI // By his own admission, Eddie Callachan is a "dope on a rope". Part of his day job with the UAE Air Force involves being suspended hundreds of metres off the ground, attempting to avoid smoke, heavy winds and fire.

Despite his self-deprecating title, however, he is a lifeline for people trapped on the roofs of burning buildings and involved in other mishaps. A South African, he has been a member of the medical team with the Air Force and Air Defence Medical Centre since 2000, and responds to everything from road crashes to calls of distress from fishermen lost at sea. Mr Callachan, a flight paramedic, risks his life for the sake of others. "We can do what other doctors don't - it's not their environment," he said. "We wouldn't go to work in an intensive unit care. It's not our environment."

Moving to Abu Dhabi, he said, gave him an opportunity to become part of a relatively new system that could only get better. "Health care is still developing in this country, especially the aeromedical field," he said. "There is huge room for development in research and training. It's great to get in at the grass-roots level."

In South Africa Mr Callachan, 39, a father of one, worked as a firefighter paramedic. That gave him invaluable training for his new post, particularly in rooftop rescues. Mr Callachan and his team are based at the Al Bateen airbase in Abu Dhabi and deploy on helicopters or four-engine turboprop airplanes. They are often called to help other emergency services cope with large numbers of casualties or rescues from difficult-to-reach spots.

Missions include search-and-rescue operations in mountains, the desert or at sea, and responding to traffic crashes involving military personnel or their families. When it comes to finding people lost at sea, the circumstances are often challenging. "There's a lot of times when the boat has activated the [distress] signal, but when you get to that spot, they've moved," Mr Callachan said. "It's very frustrating when you know they're there but you can't find them. Then it turns from a rescue to a recovery. You just always hope you find the person safe and well."

In urban settings, he said, "I'm the dope-on-the-rope guy. I get on the hoist to be dropped down to pick people up. You have to be very careful, and it requires a lot of concentration - you can't afford to slip." These sorts of rescues are not uncommon in the capital. In September 2008, a young girl and two adults had to be airlifted to safety after a fire broke out on a roof shanty atop a 16-storey apartment block on Airport Road.

Because of the sensitivity of his job, however, Mr Callachan is unable to discuss details of specific rescue missions. Lt Col Dr Nasser al Nuaimi, the chief flight surgeon of the UAE Air Force and head of the search-and-rescue and medical evacuation unit, said Mr Callachan's background makes him invaluable. "All of the team are from South Africa," he said. "And this works very well in terms of their understanding of where things are at in the UAE. It is still a relatively new service and they all adapt very well."

Lt Col Al Nuaimi, an Emirati, said the unit has big ambitions. The top three priorities for the next five years, he said, are building a more co-ordinated approach across the country; gaining more experience; and nationalisation. "I would love to see more UAE men and women in the teams, but at the same time, I would never compromise on quality," he said. Mr Callachan and his colleagues are certainly "heroic", Lt Col al Nuaimi said, and don't often get the recognition they deserve, but this is part of working for a military organisation.

"A lot of the work is unknown by the public," he said. "Particularly the humanitarian work we have done in the Iraq War and natural disasters such as the Pakistan earthquake. To be involved in these types of things is an honour." Mr Callachan and his team flew to Pakistan to help after the October 2008 earthquake, which killed at least 170 people and injured thousands more.

For Mr Callachan, it was a new and striking experience. "There was a lot of injured people and not a lot of health care," he said. "We ended up bringing back a lot of patients to be treated in hospitals in the UAE. "The training teaches you how to concentrate on one patient - at that time we had 56 in the plane. It is very, very challenging and you can't apply all your training, you just have to do the best you can in the amount of time you have." But Mr Callachan has one statistic he is especially proud of. To date, he said, there have been no fatalities on his flights.

"We obviously want to avoid death or deterioration in flight. They are out of their comfort zone sometimes, and if they are seriously injured they can deteriorate very fast. And you can't hear. In an intensive care unit there are alarms that go off - on a plane you wouldn't hear them. "It's challenging dealing with a patient in that environment and bringing them into the hospital in hopefully a better or more stable condition. But it's my job, and of course I enjoy it."