Saving lives – Consular & Rega

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

22 February 2015

If I only do one thing during my time as Ambassador – that one thing – the very top priority and essence of my job – is to keep American citizens safe.

While everyone on my team plays some part in that, the lion’s share of that responsibility falls on my amazing consular team – a team that contains a combination of locally engaged staff and Foreign Service officers.

In many cases when American citizens are hurt, lost, etc…, our Embassy is contacted – either by the individuals, their families, or by the organization that is taking care of those Americans.  The team builds up and maintains tight relationships with many organizations so that they can work closely with them to best care for those citizens.

The work that my team does and how they do it really hit home recently during our visit to one of the organizations with whom my team works: Rega.

I first mentioned Rega in my post in June regarding the rescue of 12 Americans in 1946 from a plane crash on the Gauli Glacier.  An American airplane crash was the start of Rega.

Since then, Rega has grown into a unique, effective, large and very special organization.  They are a non-profit private organization with 2.5 million patrons to the organization (my family included).  When you become a patron, if you are in an emergency situation, you can contact Rega anywhere in the world (#1414 in country) and they will respond.  That response, within Switzerland, it might mean an airlift via a helicopter or, if you’re somewhere else in the world, it might mean anything from consultation with a physician via phone to having a jet come and pick you up to take you back to Switzerland.  Their website recounts many specifics about what they do and how they do it – including a 360degree view of the inside of one of their planes.

A few of the points that blew me away:

  • They are a privately funded organization, not a government organization.  Funded by those patrons plus donations, their helicopters are distributed across the country so that they are able to reach all parts of Switzerland within 15 minutes (except for the Valais – where other private services provide that service).
  • They typically have medical doctors and/or nurses on the helicopter/airplane to support those in need – as opposed to having technicians bring the injured back to a hospital and having an additional hour before critical care is provided.
  • Farmers can include their cows in their membership and Rega will transport cows who might have gotten themselves in precarious situations or who have gotten injured back to where they need to go.
  • In this past year alone, they flew almost 14,500 missions – including about 1,000 using the jet
    In their main hangar at Zürich Airport, they typically have 2-3 helicopters going through maintenance so that they can always have enough helicopters out in the field to meet the needs of their constituency
  • Their aircraft are all equipped with night vision and the ability to fly when it’s instrument flight only.
  • Note – while they’re responsive to their patrons (who can access Rega by phone – or even by mobile phone app) – they also are the service called for anyone in need of rescuing throughout most of Switzerland.

This membership in Rega is and isn’t like insurance.  It’s like it because, even though it’s unlikely that any given individual will need their services, 2.5 million people pay anyway (out of a population of about 8 million).  This fact then amortizes the costs across many more people and provides a steady revenue stream.  It’s unlike insurance because they are not hesitant about deploying resources to help people.

From this visit – I was able to see the strong relationship my team has with the people across Rega and to feel assured that our citizens will be well cared for in the event of an emergency here.

Below are pictures of the helicopters in the hangar for service, me with a coupe of their executives, and then the operations center where calls come in and are handled.  During our visit, several calls came in.  On the map in the background, they show where the helicopters and jets are at any given time and also where they have cases they are tracking.  While we were there, the jets were in Bangkok and Portugal.