J’lem emergency services face challenges due to light rail

After 'Jerusalem Post' investigates Jaffa Street access complaints, transportation officials say will find way for emergency vehicles.

By MELANIE LIDMAN
January 21, 2011 01:24
3 minute read.
United Hatzalah

United Hatzalah 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

 
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As Jerusalem’s light rail moves closer to completion, residents and city officials alike are grappling with the unexpected growing pains that accompany the closing of a major downtown thoroughfare.

Events like a small apartment fire on Jaffa Road on Wednesday posed new challenges to volunteers from private emergency first responder organization United Hatzalah, who suddenly found that the closure of Jaffa to all vehicles except the light rail on Saturday night also applied to their medically equipped motorcycles.

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Following a Jerusalem Post investigation into United Hatzalah’s complaint that it could not access buildings on Jaffa Street, transportation officials said they would find a way to give the organization the same authorization to travel on Jaffa Street as fire, police and ambulance vehicles.

“We are working to find a solution to the problem,” Shmuel Elgrabli, the spokesman for the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan, told the Post on Thursday.

In European cities with light rails, both Elgrabli and United Hatzalah director Eli Beer noted, emergency services coordinate with the light rail to travel on the same track.

“There are 140 cities with light rails, and Jerusalem is number 141,” said Elgrabli.

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“This is not new. What they do in other cities, we’ll also do here.”

A Jerusalem Municipality spokeswoman confirmed that in the event of an emergency, rescue services and the light rail control center would coordinate in real time.

All emergency vehicle drivers will need to undergo a special course from Citypass, the company that is running the light rail, to learn how to drive on the light rail path when the trains are running, said Elgrabli. The volunteers who drive Hatzalah’s 60 ambucycles in Jerusalem are experts at weaving in between cars and buses, but not between light rail trains.

Hatzalah’s 240 volunteers respond to around 170 incidents per day in Jerusalem.

“First responders” means the volunteers who work to stabilize a patient until an ambulance arrives and can evacuate the patient to a hospital if needed. The organization, which operates across the country and uses motorcycles with emergency medical equipment, is particularly useful because of the notorious traffic and narrow roads in Israel, especially in Jerusalem.

Because volunteers come from their houses or places of work rather than a dispatch center, the major advantage the organization can offer is a faster response time.

“[The volunteers] get very upset when they know they could have been there 10 seconds earlier,” Beer said.

On average, Hatzalah responders, which get the same beeper updates as emergency services, arrive at a site six to 10 minutes before ambulances, he said. In cases where a victim is unconscious or not breathing, the difference of a few minutes is crucial.

Jerusalem firefighters, meanwhile, have found a different challenge with the light rail on Jaffa Street: The electric wires for the trains suspended over the tracks may get in the way of their ladders. Firefighters are in the process of coordinating tests with the police and the light rail to ensure smooth responses to fires in the downtown area, said Jerusalem district spokesman Asaf Abras.

Elgrabli pleaded with Jerusalem residents to look at the long-term goal rather than the day-to-day problems as the light rail construction entered the last difficult stretch.

“We don’t have any other choice... we have a complete city here that’s undergoing modernization,” he said.

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