The sun was shining and the summer weather was perfect for a swim in the sea, but Alexandru Tofan's holiday had got off to a bad start.
Together with his girlfriend and another couple, Tofan was heading to an isolated beach on the Black Sea: Vadu. The spot has no proper access roads, but that's part of its appeal among young adventure seekers.
“It rained a lot before our holiday and the main access was flooded. We found an alternative route and we even got out of the car to figure out if we could get through, but the car remained stuck,” he recalls.
In the middle of nowhere, Tofan racked his brain for a solution.
“I was thinking of going to the nearest village to ask a guy with a tractor to come and pull out the car,” Tofan says.
Meanwhile, his friends were trying various means to get the car out – like putting the seat-well carpets under the wheels, with a lot of mess and no success. They even managed to flag down a four-wheel drive to come and help, but the driver couldn't get enough traction himself.
Nevertheless, he was able to recommend an alternative: an online community called Rescue 4X4, run by volunteers.
“Logan stuck in the sand,” was his message on the platform, referring to the Dacia car model.
“I was with my girlfriend in the area, preparing to head onto the beach. And right then I received a SMS on my phone about the incident,” 31-year-old IT programmer Mihai Tuhari, who conceived the service, remembers.
“I called Alexandru to tell him that I would come, as he was right on my way.”
In half an hour he was on the scene and, with a cable, he managed to extract the car from the mud.
Tuhari says his club has very strict rules. “If we find out that a member asked for money, we expel him.”
“We offered to pay, at least to buy him a cold beer, but Mihai refused everything,” Tofan confirmed.
Too much success
Tuhari was inspired to create the platform by a Facebook group offering a similar service.
“As with all good intentions, the problem with that group was that you might get lost between all the comments,” he observes.
“I've been working with computers since I was 15, so I always liked to automate things. If you have to repeat something 15 times, then you can create a system for this.”
And so, one weekend, Mihai developed the platform: the volunteer members have to create an account and to specify a certain area around them where they can intervene. Those who need help go onto the website the website, provide details on the accident, and the system automatically takes their GPS location and sends SMS and emails to 50 volunteers identified as being closest to the victim.
Tuhari says that he set the limit to 50 SMS, because, for the moment, he pays the bill himself.
“Each SMS costs 60 cents, so it costs me 3 euros per incident. At the end of last winter, when there was heavy snow, I had to pay almost 200 euros,” he says.
“I never intended to make money from this project, it is strictly on a volunteer basis and I am glad that, for 3 euros, someone gets rescued from a ditch, for instance, with his car and the kids during the night, that a member was able to help him and that everything was free for him,” he adds.
Catalin Predescu joined the platform as a volunteer after he used the application in an emergency situation.
In March this year, when winter returned to Romania with a vengeance, Predescu took an alternative off-road route, in an attempt to avoid gridlock around the capital Bucharest.
“There was a ditch covered with snow and mud, I didn’t see it, so my front wheels dropped into it,” says Predescu, who was driving a 4X4.
With the car stuck, he called a friend for help. But it didn't take long to figure out that, even with the extra car, they wouldn't get out. So, with nothing to lose, he used a number from the Rescue 4X4 Facebook group he'd come across in the past.
Half an hour later, two guys driving 4X4s came, extracted the car and got it back on the road within fifteen minutes.
“I was very pleasantly surprised to see that […] this was all for free. Normally, if something happens with your car, you have to call a tow truck and pay,” Predescu tells Euronews.
It's one year since Mihai Tuhari co-founded his patform with Paul Dorneanu, and transformed the project into a charitable group – the Association of Volunteer Rescuers 4X4 or ASV 4X4.
Dorneanu says having official status has allowed them to co-ordinate with the authorities and other emergency operators.
On the Facebook page, there is a phone number which rings the mobiles of each of the five founder members. They are available day and night. Dorneanu says that one day soon they may need to hire a call handler.
For Tuhari, who earns his living working remotely for IT companies based in Australia, USA or Italy, the warm handshake of relieved drivers helped by his project is ample motivation for continuing.
“It is about joy, about being human: there are people who are happy when they can help,” he says.
Tuhari says that now, since they are an association, companies can get tax rebates in return for offering support. He hopes to be able to cover the hosting costs for the website and also to come to an agreement with a phone company to manage communication expenses.
“If it becomes self-sustainable, I'll be glad. Otherwise, I will pay the SMS charges. I don’t want to get rich from others’ needs: if someone is in trouble I don't want to take advantage.”
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