IIT Bombay students, alumni run emergency ambulances

IIT Bombay: The private ambulance service, HelpNow, provides rides free to the poor, the police and government employees.

IIT Bombay students, alumni run emergency ambulances HelpNow provides ambulances at subsidised rates and even free for the needy to more than 30,000 patients.
R. Radhika | Apr 21, 2021 - 4:22 p.m. IST
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NEW DELHI: Compelled by first-hand experience of a “broken ambulance system”, two students and an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay have started an around-the-clock ambulance service for medical emergencies.

To address the acute shortage of ambulances amid rising COVID cases, the HelpNow initiative has aggregated over 700 vehicles that are deployed and reach within 15 to 20 minutes across Mumbai, Pune, Delhi and Bengaluru. Aditya Makkar, Shikar Agrawal in their final year at IIT Bombay and Venkatesh Amrutwar, an alumnus started this initiative.

HelpNow started with 12 ambulances on the roads of Mumbai in 2019. Within a year, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country in 2020, its network expanded exponentially. Currently, there are more than 350 ambulances in Mumbai alone.

“When we started, we had no idea that we would be dealing with the biggest pandemic the world has ever seen. The average arrival time of an ambulance is 50 minutes in India. It is not just the pandemic which has highlighted the issue, the problem existed before the pandemic started,” said Agrawal.

IIT-Bombay-COVID-19-ambulance-featured-imageHelpNow ambulances with staff

Now, with the second wave of coronavirus, the HelpNow call centres receive hundreds of calls each day. The founders said they have provided services at subsidized rates and even free for the needy to more than 30,000 patients. The service is open to people from other parts of the country looking for better healthcare in these four metro cities.

“A lot of the trips were provided free of cost when the patient is financially challenged, a government servant or police personnel. Just to pay our drivers, paramedics and all our other staff, we charge a nominal fee which starts from Rs 500 and goes up to Rs 50,000 if it is an interstate trip,” said Makkar.

More than 18 hospitals have been roped in to provide the best medical care within a short span of time. The initiative has also garnered support from various celebrities leading to a boost in business. A dedicated helpline number - 88 99 88 99 52 has been started to access the service.

Staff and ambulances

Each vehicle, Makkar explained, is regularly sanitized, audited and upgraded with equipment to meet the increasing demand. The staff is also trained to handle emergency situations.

IIT-Bombay-covid-ambulance-featured-imageHelpNow ambulance being sanitised after use

“We have partnered with an institute to train our staff. Apart from the paramedical staff, the drivers and the helpers are given life support training. They know how to administer CPR, first aid and can provide the first medical response that is required for a patient,” he added.

Depending on the requirements of the patients, there are three different categories of ambulances with varying facilities. These include a basic ambulance with oxygen supply, a cardiac ambulance with a ventilator and paramedics to help the patients and lastly a hearse van for the transfer of dead bodies.

“On several occasions, the demand is for an ambulance equipped with an ice-box for transferring a dead body within or across the cities. During COVID pandemic, such demands have also increased,” said Agrawal. “The COVID situation has also impacted the service because people cancel an ambulance after getting to know that the hospital does not have enough beds,” he added.

Amid the staggering number of cases and an overwhelmed healthcare system, HelpNow does not assure beds but provides information on where to look for the next best option.

In-house technology

The ambulances are run based on IIT-Bombay’s in-house technology and data science that helps in reaching the patients on time. The software has essentially helped in reducing the average arrival time of ambulance time to 15 minutes.

“We have built our own technology to run the 24/7 operations. We feed a patient’s location into the system and it points us to the nearest ambulance which is automatically sent to the patient,” Makkar explained. “The government ambulance services would take around 10 minutes to just to dispatch the ambulance and the arrival time is two to three hours. Whereas we have been able to bring down the arrival time to 15 minutes,” he added.


The software has helped the cause, however, the road to success was rather challenging, the founders say. Even though the problem was identified in 2017, it took them two years to bring out the first piece of software. Makkar and Agrawal had to quit IIT Bombay to focus on the start-up.

“We [Shikhar and I] took a drop year in our third year of engineering at IIT Bombay to concentrate on the organisation after we received funding from YCombinator,” said Makkar. Y Combinator is a US-based seed money startup accelerator. “We resumed our college when the classes shifted to online mode last year. Due to the online classes, we are able to do both,” he added.

Other emergencies

Although the rise in coronavirus cases has increased the demand for ambulances, the service is not restricted to COVID-19 patients alone.

“COVID has definitely been on the rise but lately we have received requests from pregnant women, accident victims, cases of cardiac arrest, patients with kidney ailments trying to reach hospitals for dialysis, cancer patients etc,” said Makkar.

All calls are attended by 12 call operators working in a centralised call centre. Additionally, backup agents are brought in to handle calls when the demand rises. However, the number of calls exceeds their capacity at times. “Only when the calls are on a peak and the helpline executives are overwhelmed with the number of cases we have missed out on patients,” said Agrawal. “We try to service every call that reaches us.”

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