Why doesn’t Israel have a 911 system?

Currently, there are 14 emergency numbers in Israel.

Israel Police vehicle (Illustrative) (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
Israel Police vehicle (Illustrative)
(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
After the big disasters that struck in Israel during the rainstorms two weeks ago, various news outlets have begun asking the question that I have been asking for years: Why is there no centralized dispatch system in Israel such as they have 911 in North America or 112 in Europe? Why does Israel, a world leader in healthcare and emergency care, not have a centralized dispatch system for all emergency responders, including the police, the fire department and emergency medical services (EMS)?
During a televised news piece on Channel 13 News, the reporters said that they discovered that in spite of proposed legislation in the Knesset to implement a unified dispatching system in Israel, one organization, Magen David Adom, refused and continually refuses to allow for a unified dispatching system.
Ynet published an in-depth article that stated, “MKs have attempted to pass a law to create a unified dispatch but Magen David Adom blocked the law and since then governments have lost interest. However, during the recent floods, hundreds of emergency calls went unanswered.”
According to retired police Maj.-Gen. David Caroza, one of the people interviewed in the article, there are many people who suffer because of the sheer amount of emergency numbers in Israel, each leading to its own rescue organization. If a person in need of help doesn’t get the correct one, then they have to be rerouted or call back to a different number and that takes time. When lives are on the line, time is of the utmost importance.
Currently, there are 14 emergency numbers in Israel. In the same news segment on Channel 13, the reporters interviewed people on the street and asked them what number they would call if they were witnessing or having a medical emergency. Unfortunately, many people didn’t know the right answer or got confused.
What’s worse is that calling for help becomes all the more difficult and confusing when you actually are in the middle of an emergency and your mind goes blank, and you are only able to focus on the emergency in front of you. This may be the most important reason why we need one clear and identifiable number that can be ingrained into people’s memory so that they make the call without hesitation.
In 2004, former MK Eitan Cabal proposed the first bill that called for a unified dispatching system in Israel and would work equally with all emergency organizations in the country. Since then, numerous other proposed laws have been suggested. However, every time one comes to the Knesset floor, it never makes it through, and the efforts remain on the floor of the Knesset and in the committees.
During a meeting of the Defense Ministry in 2011, the various agencies involved presented their positions on the issue of having such a dispatch. The police and the Fire Department supported the idea of a unified dispatching system but noted that the initiative would require an investment of resources, and requested to wait with the initiative due to a worry that a newly formed dispatching service for all first responders would harm professionalism at the outset.
MAGEN DAVID Adom however, was the only organization to vehemently oppose such a move, claiming that they would lose precious seconds in responding due to dispatchers getting confused about how to answer emergency calls and lacking expertise in the medical field to provide instructions to the person calling. Their last argument was that any such workable system would incur a large expense and is therefore not worth pursuing.
In 2012, MKs Uri Maklev and Moshe Gafni proposed a similar law, and in spite of receiving support from the cabinet, the law did not progress to the Knesset Plenum. MDA director Eli Bin claimed in a discussion that took place in the Finance Committee, “The country does not have the financial resources that it would require to invest the millions of shekels for training and establishing such a dispatch. The time factor with regard to emergencies that MDA has to respond to is critical for saving lives.”
The problem is that he has it all wrong. Unifying the dispatches of Israel will save lives, as the information will be sent to all first responders, whoever is closest, and not just to MDA.
This way the information will be shared across all rescue agencies and organizations, allowing for the closest responders to arrive in the fastest time possible regardless of which agency or organization they happen to be from. That will save lives.
Additionally, a unified dispatch will cut down the confusion among the populace with regard to what number to call, as well as the time lost calling the wrong number, thus saving even more lives.
With regard to cost, there is no doubt that it will be costly at first to train and set up such a unified dispatch system that will be run by the government. However, a fair number of Knesset members, both past and present and from all sides of the political spectrum, have recognized the need for such an expense as it will save people.
The initial cost shouldn’t be a factor, especially when taking into consideration that a unified dispatch system will eventually bring about the closure of all of the dispatching centers, both government-funded as well as privately operated, and that this will save the government money in operational costs in the long term.
So why does MDA impede the efforts of the Knesset MKs who wish to see more lives saved in a method that was agreed upon by all other rescue agencies? The only reason I can think of is that they wish to maintain their monopoly on emergency medical services. Unfortunately, monopolies and separate dispatches cause a delay in response times and it also causes hundreds if not thousands of emergency calls to go unanswered, as was the case during the severe rainstorms a few weeks ago.
The writer is the father of five children, a social entrepreneur and president and founder of United Hatzalah of Israel, an independent, nonprofit, fully volunteer EMS organization that provides fast and free emergency first response throughout Israel.