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June 12, 2013

Lights out (and sirens off) for Hatzolah?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/lights_out_and_sirens_off_for_hatzolah

No matter what they’re driving, the EMTs of Hatzolah are operating in a manner whose legality is uncertain.  Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

No matter what they’re driving, the EMTs of Hatzolah are operating in a manner whose legality is uncertain. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

In March 2011, Hatzolah of Los Angeles, the Orthodox Jewish volunteer emergency response corps, celebrated its 10th anniversary in this city. The celebratory dinner offered a chance for the group to thank some of its supporters, and the hundreds who attended — including elected officials and high-ranking civil servants — heard stories of Hatzolah volunteers saving lives, in part by arriving on the scenes of emergencies within minutes of being called. 

The principal honoree that evening was California Highway Patrol (CHP) Commissioner Joseph A. Farrow. The state agency had given Hatzolah a permit to operate the lights and sirens on its vehicles when responding to emergencies, a practice known as responding “Code 3.”

Left unmentioned that evening was the fact that Hatzolah lacked any authorization from the City of Los Angeles to operate its ambulances, or to respond Code 3. Three times in the three years leading up to that public event, the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) had informed the group, in writing, that its basic model violated two separate sections of L.A. County law. 

Absent those permits, Hatzolah never stopped working, responding to emergency calls and, in some cases, acting as liaison between members of the Jewish community and mostly non-Jewish first responders. Last summer, the group helped rescue two individuals — in one instance working with Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies to find a person just minutes before what would have almost certainly been a successful suicide. 

But starting in 2011, and for more than a full year, all of Hatzolah’s vehicles were off the streets; two years after the celebration, its three fully equipped ambulances still sit idle. 

Its approximately 80 EMTs still respond to emergencies — mostly using their own, private cars and obeying traffic signals even when en route to an emergency, but occasionally using one of Hatzalah’s four SUVs with the lights and sirens running. But no matter what they’re driving, the EMTs are operating in a manner whose legality is uncertain. 

“The current status is ‘hot potato,’ ” Hatzolah spokesman David Bacall said of his organization. “That’s the best way that I can describe it.”

Hatzolah, Hebrew for rescue, got its start in Los Angeles in 2001. Its volunteers operate in three neighborhoods of the city with dense populations of Orthodox Jews, although most Angelenos are hardly aware of the group’s existence, a sharp contrast to chapters in and around New York City that are far better established. 

On the East Coast, the presence of volunteer ambulance corps is quite common, particularly in smaller towns. Hatzolah’s first chapter was established in Brooklyn in the 1970s; Bacall, a financial adviser originally from New Jersey, had served as a volunteer with a number of different 911-related volunteer corps before moving to Los Angeles with his family four years ago. 

In California, however, EMS services are provided primarily by local professionalized fire departments, which maintain exclusive claims to being the sole 911 responders in their particular regions. In the city of Los Angeles, the exclusive responder to emergency calls is the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD); in unincorporated sections of Los Angeles County, the county fire department has that privilege. 

Under current county law, Hatzolah is prohibited from responding to emergencies, even when the calls come in over the group’s dedicated hotline. In its letters, the DOT has informed the group that to obtain a permit, Hatzolah would first have to agree not to respond to emergencies. 

Furthermore, because Los Angeles County Emergency Medical Services Agency (LACEMS) also determines the sums charged by all private ambulances in the county, Hatzolah would be prohibited from providing transport to hospitals free of charge.

In both respects, Hatzolah could be seen as a threat to the LAFD — threatening the agency’s claim to exclusivity in the city and chipping away at the department’s main source of revenue, the fees paid by patients and their insurance companies for transport.

In fact, Hatzolah responds to about 500 emergencies each year, and Bacall argues that its relative size wouldn’t adversely affect the LAFD’s bottom line in a significant way. In general, Bacall said, Hatzolah’s aim is to support and supplement the work of the LAFD. 

“We’ve trained with them in the past,” Bacall said. “The boots on the ground, we have a really good rapport with 80 or 90 percent of them.”

The representatives from United Firefighters of Los Angeles City (UFLAC) are a different story, however. 

About five years ago, Hatzolah attempted to get a bill passed in Sacramento that would have specifically allowed the group to respond to emergency calls, using lights and sirens. Then UFLAC President Pat McOsker showed up at the California State Legislature’s transportation committee and argued against the bill, which stopped it in its tracks. 

“It seems like that’s the most complicated issue for them, and there are regulations that get in the way at every level,” said Paul Koretz, who introduced the legislation when he was in the Assembly. 

Koretz, a member of the Los Angeles City Council since 2009, represents some of the parts of the city where Hatzolah operates, and he maintains his strong support for the organization. 

Under current county law, Hatzolah is prohibited from responding to emergencies, even when the calls come in over the group’s dedicated hotline. In its letters, the DOT has informed the group that to obtain a permit, Hatzolah would first have to agree not to respond to emergencies.

In July 2011, Koretz convened a meeting with representatives of the LAFD, DOT, LACEMS and Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), hoping that the agencies could find a way to work together to allow Hatzolah to respond to emergencies. 

The meeting was “somewhat tense,” Koretz recalled, and the responses of the different agencies were “bureaucratic.” 

“It sounded like some of their requirements might even conflict with each other,” Koretz said in an interview recently. “I was hoping that some of the people in these positions would try to make it work; but I couldn’t tell whether they were finding a way to make it work or trying to find a way to not make it work.”

Perhaps as a result of the bureaucratic challenges and the union’s opposition, Hatzolah has shown itself willing to act first and ask questions later. 

The group, for instance, received a “cease-and-desist” letter from LAPD Chief Charlie Beck’s office in 2011, telling the responders to stop driving Code 3. Earlier this year, on the advice of attorneys, Hatzolah wrote back to Beck informing him that they would resume use of lights and sirens on their four SUVs, in certain cases. Hatzolah leaders met with Beck last month to discuss the matter, Bacall said. 

As for Hatzolah’s three ambulances, the group has submitted an application to LACEMS, but has not brought itself into compliance with the relevant laws. Instead, Bacall said, Hatzolah is hoping that some branch of government — perhaps the state legislature — will provide it with an exemption that would allow Hatzolah to continue responding to emergencies on a volunteer basis. 

Los Angeles’ newly elected mayor and city attorney are almost sure to face questions about whether or how Hatzolah will be allowed to operate in L.A. 

A spokesman for Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti’s transition team did not respond by press time to a request for comment. Former Assemblyman Mike Feuer attended the Hatzolah 10th anniversary dinner two years ago, and a spokesman said Feuer would address the matter once he takes office as city attorney. 

“As with a myriad of issues, he will carefully evaluate each side and receive a full briefing from city attorney staff and make a decision,” spokesman Rob Wilcox said. “Right now, he is City Attorney-elect, and he is focused on his transition.”

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