With the current onslaught of Palestinian terrorism against Israelis and isolated incidents of Jewish terrorism against Palestinians, 3,000 volunteers – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druse and Beduin clad in orange, black and white vests – are working around the clock to save lives.
The Kafkaesque, ironic situation is clear to the outside observer, but taken for granted by the medics and paramedics of United Hatzalah on ambucycles, whose aim is to reach any injured or sick person needing help within 90 seconds of being called.
Noted French-Jewish producer and director Jose Ainouz spent six months following UH volunteers and chronicling their good deeds to make a 66-minute film about them.
Although he had not been involved with Israel before, he was entranced with the organization and the country, bought a home here and has decided to make aliya.
Called The Ambucycles of Life, the action-packed movie is meant for viewing “not by the people who love Israel or those who hate Israel, but those who are neutral,” says UH founder and president Eli Beer.
“The first are already convinced that Israel is wonderful; the second are convinced that Israel is horrible. We want to reach the others who don’t know about what we do.” It appears in Hebrew, English and French versions.
The film premiere was put on for hundreds of UH volunteers at Jerusalem’s Cinema City earlier this month by the IsraeLife Foundation, whose mission is to support the lifesaving efforts of United Hatzalah. A Druse volunteer brought a special hanukkia up to the stage, and Ainouz lit the candles as Beer and friends watched.
United Hatzalah of Israel is the largest independent, non-profit, fully volunteer Emergency Medical Services organization, providing the fastest emergency medical first response without charge throughout Israel.
United Hatzalah’s service is available to all people, regardless of race, religion or national origin.
“European film festivals and TV networks have bought it,” Beer told The Jerusalem Post. “We have also signed a contract with two movie theaters in New York City, but it will eventually reach even more distant audiences.
We want the whole world to know about our technique – trained medics and paramedics reaching those in need of first aid anywhere they are.”
Beer launched the ambucycle idea in Israel, as Magen David Adom ambulances are very often held back from reaching the sick and injured because of traffic congestion, road closures, debris and parking problems.
Eventually, the MDA ambulances take the patient to hospital if additional care is required.
Beer has been involved in the idea of emergency medical rapid response since 1988, when, as a teenager, he observed a Jerusalem bus exploding from a terrorist bomb. He decided to take an MDA first aid course. But when he saw that it often takes time for help to arrive, he fine-tuned his idea of ambucycles and helped establish UH in 2006, following the Second Lebanon War. Since then, he and colleagues have dedicated themselves to unifying the level of professionalism, training and efficiency of the disparate Hatzalah organizations throughout Israel.
At present, he serves as UH’s voluntary president, chief coordinator and senior medic, continuing to go about on ambucycle when he is close to someone who needs immediate help. When not in the field, Beer lectures at health organizations around the world and was a featured presenter at the European Union’s Homeland Security Conference.
THE AMBUCYCLE contains everything needed by medics and paramedics (except for a bed). The storage box on the back has advanced lifesaving equipment sized to fit the unique operational requirements and configuration limitations of an ambucycle. In addition to the complete trauma kit, the box contains a specialized oxygen canister, blood sugar monitor and defibrillator. All the medications that could be used are inside in small doses, regularly replenished by volunteers.
Each of the hundreds of ambucycles responds to some 40 calls per month, roughly 480 calls a year.
About a quarter of these calls are critical lifesaving situations. Each ambucycle is on the road responding to emergencies for at least three years, and therefore will enable volunteers respond to around 1,440 calls and will save 360 lives.
Last year, more than 650 people were helped by UH volunteers on an average day, with an annual total of about 240,000.
Having the well-trained, equipped and motivated medics ready to race to save someone’s life is useless, said Beer, unless you have a system that locates, alerts and guides the medic to the scene in the quickest and most efficient fashion. These motorcycles, including all required medical equipment, maintenance, and insurance, cost about NIS 100,000 each.
The LifeCompass system, developed in cooperation with NowForce, draws a virtual perimeter around an incident that has been entered into the system. It then alerts only the medics in a predetermined radius to the incident. Each volunteer knows that when the LifeCompass alerts him, it is because he is in the immediate vicinity of an emergency incident. Complete GPS guidance to the scene and recording capabilities ensure that every incident is responded to and recorded.
The organization even has a small boat from which they save people from drowning in the Kinneret.
The film begins in Jerusalem, where UH has 450 volunteers, enough to make it possible to reach virtually any sick or injured person within 50 or 60 seconds, volunteers said.
Beer noted that the aim of UH is not only saving lives, but also developing unity among volunteers.
A gamut of Hassidim who usually wouldn’t speak to each other – Lithuanian- style ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jews, modern Orthodox, Chabad Hassidim, secular Jews, Christian, Beduin and Druse – work both separately and together.
“It was impossible for me not to produce this film,” said Ainouz. “My team went from the North to the South. How can 3,000 volunteers give of their time in a world that is so egotistical? I wanted to show the truth to the world. They really do arrive in less than three minutes.”
All funds, he added, come from donations from Israel and abroad.
The camera zooms in on a young man cleaning a carp in a fish store and a barber plying his scissors on a customer’s hair. Both receive an alert, put on their UH vests and rush out immediately to jump on their ambucycles. “We have treated over one million people. It’s a great mitzva. Nobody before has utilized motorcycles that can deliver pizzas to save lives,” a volunteer says.
A UH volunteer and friend of Beer remembers when there was no UH.
“As a child, I always wanted to be a doctor. I took an MDA first aid course and then worked on a ambulance. But I saw that the ambulance often didn’t arrive on time. A child died unnecessarily when a doctor was a block away. If the doctor had come immediately, he would have saved the child. I said to my friends that there had to be a better way. So we – all emergency medical technicians – got together.”
Another person was swimming near a wedding hall when he heard screams. A man had stopped breathing.
“I wasn’t afraid of anything, but I couldn’t help. All we could do was recite Psalms. It took 15 minutes for two ambulances to arrive, but nothing helped. The man died.”
Daniel Katzenstein, another of the original UH volunteers, remembered taking MDA first-aid courses, and that when Hatzalah was founded, “MDA refused to give us information on calls. So we bought police radio scanners and lived with the radios connected to our ears to get to those who needed help as fast as we could.”
Another veteran volunteer recalled pre-UH days: “I was sitting in my father’s shop in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood. Somebody said that a 70-year-old man just a block away had been injured when the mirror of a car tore an artery of his neck. I ran to him, but had no medical equipment. I knew what to do, but I had only my bare hands and no gloves. People called an ambulance. I took my kippa off, folded it and pressed it to stop the bleeding. The ambulance that people had called took 20 minutes to arrive, but I had stopped the blood.”
Gitty Beer, Eli’s wife, noted that not only the medics and paramedics sacrifice by being ready to get up and go any time of the day or night, including Shabbat and festivals.
“The wives and children also pay a price, but it is a passion of the whole family. If somebody dies, Eli comes back in a bad mood, but he’s in a good mood coming back after delivering a baby.”
UH has a team of physicians who give the organization medical advice. Prof. Avi Rivkind, head of trauma and surgery at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem, was so active that he was made unpaid medical director.
Medics can qualify for UH if they have passed their 21st birthday, have a vehicle license and have a clean police record. They take a theoretical and practical course of 160 hours.
After working with a trainer for a certain amount of time, passing tests and proving themselves, they are allowed to go out on their own.
WHEN BEER realized that it was difficult for his Jewish volunteers to enter eastern Jerusalem and other Arab areas, he thought of training people from that sector to be medics as well. Some even volunteered at their own initiative. One man asked to take a course after he saw his own father collapse at home and die while the family waited for an ambulance for almost an hour. A UH branch was opened in the eastern part of the capital. “My intention was to save people,” he said.
In emergencies, West Bank Palestinians bring patients to the gates of Jewish settlements to get good treatment.
If needed, UH transfers them to PA hospitals.
There are 10 Druse volunteers in the north, many of whom were present at the movie screening. In addition, more than 40 Beduin women in the south learned to be medics after realizing that their large families would be safer if they studied first aid.
Going on their rounds, UH volunteers also encountered many elderly people living alone who need help.
As a result, the organization set up a special program to visit them and talk to them. A total of 250 volunteers now visit some 70 lonely people who sought company, most of them Holocaust survivors.
“My dream," concluded Beer, "is that in 15 years or so, every neighborhood and street in the country will have a UH volunteer. No one will wait for help for more than 90 seconds. We also want countries around the world – from America to Africa – to copy our model."
“Whoever they are, our volunteers really want one thing: to see injured and sick people open their eyes again. We want them to live.”