Some are calling it the snowstorm of the century and some are calling it the bungle of the century. Regardless of which moniker sticks, Alexa was a snowstorm for the record books. Everyone will remember where they were when the storm hit and how they managed to get through the worst of it. Some will remember being snowbound on Route 1, but they will also remember the IDF soldiers in APCs, the United Hatzalah volunteers in ATVs and all the other good-hearted people who helped extricate them from the cars trapped in snowdrifts. Some people will remember hunkering down in the emergency shelters, but they will also remember the legions of volunteers who provided food, emergency medical service and good cheer. Some will remember shivering through the power outage, but will also remember the neighbors, friends and random Israelis who came through with challot for Shabbat, warm clothing for the elderly, heaters for the family and medicine for the ill.
We activated all of our resources to join in this monumental task. ATVs from its desert and mountain rescue units were in action in Jerusalem and Safed. All volunteers with 4x4 vehicles were called in to assist with the logistical nightmare brought on by the storm.
When private vehicles in service failed to negotiate the treacherous roads volunteers raced from home to home on foot to ensure that every emergency was dealt with.
Ambulance response times began to climb to life-threatening levels as the volume of calls increased proportionally to the amount of snow on the roads. Our volunteers delivered babies on the snow-clogged highways, splinted and stabilized breaks and sprains on the icy sidewalks and treated heart attack victims in homes darkened and chilled by power outages. Our phone number, 1221, became more than the United Hatzalah hotline, it became the lifeline for people who needed immediate response for everything from transporting doctors and medical staff to local area hospitals to bringing home patients from hospitals to make room for the flood of incoming patients.
The United Hatzalah dispatch teams will go down in history for their amazing dedication and grace under pressure.
Some of the dispatchers did 48-hour shifts with breaks only for naps and refreshments. They calmed kids whose parents could not reach them, instructed fathersto- be how to deliver their first child and guided passersby on how to perform CPR until United Hatzalah volunteers could reach them.
PEOPLE WILL remember the Angel and Berman challot given by the bakeries to the Hatzalah volunteers on 4x4s to distribute locally. United Hatzalah volunteers will thank the car service shop of Yitchak Hasayag for outfitting them with snowsuits to make sure they stayed toasty and warm as they raced around in the freezing weather. Binyamin Regional Council called on United Hatzalah to distribute oxygen and other medical supplies to hard-hit settlements.
Other United Hatzalah volunteers helped the Jerusalem municipality distribute heaters, blankets and donated clothing to the elderly.
It was heartwarming to receive reports of volunteers trudging through the snowdrifts at all hours of the day and night. They left their warm beds, their kids building snowmen and their Shabbat meals to respond to calls for help. Many volunteers were helping their neighbors, people who they meet at the grocery store or kids who are friends of their own children. Not only did this shorten response times by eliminating the need to travel from ambulance bases to the scene of the emergency, it also allowed volunteers to use their “home-court advantage” by taking shortcuts and locating addresses in near whiteout conditions. They also used their knowledge of their neighborhood to identify who had a kid with asthma, where the Holocaust survivor who was hooked up to oxygen lived, and which people needed transport to clinics and hospitals for chemotherapy or dialysis treatments.
When we set up United Hatzalah we knew that activating a distributed network of volunteers from within the community would provide the shortest distance for them to travel and thereby the shortest response times. We didn’t realize how vital it would be when the city virtually shut down. The volunteers became the eyes and ears of all the needs within the community and also provided the “boots on the ground” holding the line until emergency services could reach the scene. Neighborhood EMT’s became the angels in orange.
Their treatment often went far beyond the medical needs of the patient. Little stories began to circulate in the community. An elderly lady with diabetes called our headquarters to thank us for warm clothing brought to her by a volunteer who treated her. Another called to thank us for the volunteer who babysat for her children after she went to the hospital.
Sometimes it is precisely these challenges born of hardship that shed light on the greatest gift that we already have close to home. The warmth exhibited by all the people who put the needs of others before their own will always be able to melt the fiercest of winter storms.
The writer is founder and president of United Hatzalah.