‘Thank you!’ is reward enough for voluntary rescuers

Eero Sario
Image: Eero Sario

The Voluntary Rescue Service emergency response groups help people in need and make it easier for the authorities to access greater numbers of people prepared to help out in an emergency. In late March 2014, the Voluntary Rescue Service celebrated its 50th anniversary in Tampere.

Two jovial men are sitting opposite one another in the café at Tampere Hall. Both Urpo Rainto, a 72-year-old, and Tero Kaukonen, who is quite a few decades younger, have come to Tampere to celebrate the first half-century of the Voluntary Rescue Service, also known as Vapepa.

On Saturday 29th March 2014, Urpo Rainto, a retired police officer, received the Vapepa gold medal award in appreciation of his work in setting up and developing the Voluntary Rescue Service. In 1963, Rainto took part in a search-and-rescue operation mounted in Muonio, Lapland. Hundreds of people came out to look for a missing five-year-old girl who had wandered away from her family’s yard. Sadly, the girl was found dead several miles from her home. However, the very next year the Voluntary Rescue Service was founded and from the outset Rainto was involved in setting up the operation.

Having worked all his life as a policeman in sparsely-populated Finnish Lapland, Rainto says that in the days before the Voluntary Rescue Service was founded, whenever there was an emergency the police had to enlist the help of people wherever they could find them.

‘When somebody went missing, we’d have to call up military reservists, people with orienteering experience, and try hard to find anyone else who could give us a hand. Getting the required number of people involved meant making a fair number of phone calls,’ Rainto recalls.

Since the Voluntary Rescue Service was founded, getting help has been a lot easier. To get assistance from a number of volunteers, such as those in Tero Kaukonen’s group in Tampere, the local police need make only one phone call. The preparedness volunteer on duty then calls in the group of volunteers most appropriate for the task: search-and-rescue dogs, a first-assistance team and/or a group of volunteer rescuers on foot.

Volunteers do a better job
Tero Kaukonen joined one of the local emergency response groups of the Voluntary Rescue Service some three years ago. Since then, being a voluntary rescuer has become a way of life for him. Rainto and Kaukonen agree that it is the volunteers who have made the Voluntary Rescue Service what it is today. Their genuine enthusiasm and commitment are directly evident in the results they achieve.

As Rainto says, in the days before the Voluntary Rescue Service, people were drafted in to help whether or not they wanted to, because it is required by law that people must help in an emergency. ‘However, when people were forced to go out looking for somebody lost in the woods, they didn’t behave as our volunteers do,’ he explains. ‘For some of them, going into the forest was awful.’

Nobody has ever had to force Tero Kaukonen to go into the forest. He has already been involved in several operations, searching for people lost in the woods.

‘Doing something you want to do, rather than have to do, that’s when it is most rewarding,’ says Kaukonen. ‘I get to help people who genuinely and urgently need assistance. When it all ends well, we as a group receive such heartfelt thanks that we couldn’t care less how much we’ve had to give of ourselves to get there. And even when a search has a tragic outcome, it means the world to the family to have closure.’

A unique network of helpers
Since that big search operation in Muonio, the Voluntary Rescue Service has grown into a network of nearly 22,000 volunteers who over the years have helped thousands of people and families. Last year alone, volunteer helpers found 155 people who had got lost, and responded to dozens of other distressing situations for people all over Finland, including, for example, those who lost their home to fire.

The Voluntary Rescue Service has a total of 50 member organisations which train local volunteer emergency response groups to assist the authorities in operations that require large numbers of rescuers. The work of the Voluntary Rescue Service is coordinated by the Finnish Red Cross. To become a rescue volunteer you can join one of the Vapepa member organisations or take a voluntary rescue course.

The Voluntary Rescue Service and hundreds of volunteers celebrated the organisation’s 50th anniversary in Tampere at the end of March 2014.
To learn more about the Voluntary Rescue Service go to: