May 10, 2011
The low-budget rescue team
Are the volunteers of Hatzolah a model for emergency rescue teams as community services shrink?
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I met Fleischman early that Tuesday morning at his office on Third Street.
When I arrived, he was juggling a telephone call while checking his BlackBerry. He was also talking with one of his property managers who was about to go out for the day and trying to revive a finicky printer. In the corner of his cramped, windowless office, Fleischman’s brother-in-law was working with data on an Excel spreadsheet.
Despite all the distractions, at 10:25, when Fleischman’s Hatzolah-issued walkie-talkie squealed out an address, he immediately jumped out of his seat, motioned for me to follow and ran out the door.
Although there are Hatzolah chapters all around the world, they’re all independent of one another. In Los Angeles, Hatzolah’s system works like this: Someone experiencing or witnessing an emergency will call Hatzolah’s toll-free number. That hotline is monitored 24/7, including on Shabbat, by any one of about 20 different dispatchers. All of the dispatchers are Orthodox, most of them are women, and every single one has a dedicated telephone line in her home or office to which the Hatzolah hotline can be forwarded. The dispatcher will then relay the message via radio to the responders. Each Hatzolah responder — they are all men — carries a bag of equipment, a helmet and a vest identifying him as an emergency responder, as well as a large, black walkie-talkie. All of the responders are trained, certified and insured EMTs, qualified to provide basic life-support services. And if they’re close by — and they often are — they will respond.
Hatzolah has seven vehicles with decals, lights and sirens — including three ambulances — all of them legally authorized by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to stop traffic in the same way that any ambulance or Los Angeles Police Department vehicle can. But, today, many Hatzolah EMTs still respond to calls in the same way that they have for most of the group’s 10-year history, driving their own cars and obeying all traffic laws.
At the Goodwill store, Fleischman jumped out of the ambulance and retrieved a spare bright-yellow vest from the back. He handed it to me, and as I put it on, Fleischman spotted another ambulance — this one painted LAFD red — coming toward us from the west.
I followed Fleischman into the store, around the cashier’s counter and into the shoe section where a man in his mid-60s was lying on his back on the floor. The man had fallen, and one of the Hatzolah EMTs had taped up his nose and put something underneath his head.
The firefighters were right behind us and immediately began taking over for the Hatzolah responders. With LAFD in control, Fleischman stepped back from the patient and headed for the door.
Over the course of a day, I accompanied Fleischman on three very different calls. After the Goodwill shop, I watched as one of Fleischman’s colleagues bandaged up a 7-year-old’s head at an all-girls school on Beverly Boulevard, then handed the girl off to her mother with instructions to take her to the hospital to get stitches. And, near the end of the day, we were first on the scene at an apartment in Hancock Park, where we found a 93-year-old woman, a Holocaust survivor, sitting on the floor by her bed, unable to get up. The woman had a history of falling down, and the Hatzolah EMTs who showed up decided that advanced life support was going to be necessary, so they called the LAFD paramedics.
These are not the stories supporters usually tell about Hatzolah. More typically they sound a lot like this one, about Motty Stock and his wife.
In 2003, Stock found his wife, Freda, lying on the floor of their bedroom, but he didn’t just call 911. He also called Hatzolah, and the volunteer responders arrived within minutes, about 15 minutes before the Fire Department did. The volunteers identified the problem — she was having a seizure and choking on her own vomit; they stabilized her and helped save her life. “Thank God I had the Hatzolah sticker on my phone,” Stock said.
Stock told this story to a Jewish Journal reporter in 2004, and again, on March 1 of this year, he retold it at the first-ever gala dinner benefiting Hatzolah of Los Angeles.
Standing next to the Stocks in the dimly lit ballroom were the two Hatzolah responders who had saved Freda’s life eight years earlier. One of them was Fleischman, who had stayed on to look after Motty, even after Freda was safely in the care of the LAFD paramedics.
“‘You have a 3-week-old baby in the room,’ ” Motty Stock recalled Fleischman asking. “ ‘Do you have anything to feed her?’ ”
After helping to save the mother’s life, Fleischman, who today has five children of his own, went out and bought baby formula for the Stocks’ child.
The Stocks’ story illustrates the two most-lauded qualities of Hatzolah responders. The first — rapid response — is at the heart of Hatzolah. The first chapter was established in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1960s, when getting an ambulance to arrive could take more than half an hour. Setting up local infrastructure worked remarkably well there, and similar volunteer ambulance companies quickly began springing up in many parts of New York City and its vicinity.
Even in Los Angeles, where the average response time for the first paramedic on scene is just five minutes and 30 seconds, Hatzolah volunteers often arrive more quickly because they live in the neighborhoods they serve.
The second quality — providing sensitive care to members of a community who might otherwise not feel comfortable being cared for by ordinary responders — is, in the minds of many elected officials as well as Hatzolah backers, the primary reason for the group’s existence in Los Angeles.
“The purpose of Hatzolah was — and let’s be clear about this — the original purpose was to provide emergency response with a sensitivity to a particular community from within the community,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.
Yaroslavsky helped set up initial meetings for Tzvika Brenner, Hatzolah’s long-serving president, with city and county fire department officials. “That was the whole raison d’être for this. It was not to duplicate the work of the L.A. City Fire Department and the L.A. County Fire Department,” Yaroslavsky said.
On the four calls I went on — hardly a representative sample, to be sure — the volunteer EMTs seemed phenomenally fast, and they did a good job of being sensitive. But I saw nothing as dramatic as Freda Stock’s life-threatening situation. On one ride-along, I watched Hatzolah responders tend to a young, otherwise very healthy man who had been injured while surfing in Huntington Beach. He called Hatzolah only upon his return home to Pico-Robertson, more than an hour (and a few more waves) after the initial injury.
Despite the situation’s apparent lack of urgency, the Hatzolah volunteers splinted the surfer’s leg and took him in their ambulance to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, free of charge. Had the patient called 911, he (or his insurer) would have been billed the standard fees for the care and transfer — $712 for the same level of basic life support care that Hatzolah volunteers provided at no charge — not including LAFD’s additional charges for supplies used and miles driven to the hospital.
Why did he call Hatzolah? “Because we’re Jewish,” one of the surfer’s friends, who did not want to give his name, told me.
They knew about Hatzolah — but, for the most part, word hasn’t gotten out beyond the Orthodox community, despite the fact that the group spent $29,443 on “Community Awareness Material” in 2009, the largest category of spending that year.
A telephone survey of synagogue staff members at three synagogues in Valley Village showed that while Hatzolah volunteers had been called to the Orthodox Shaarey Tzedek synagogue on more than one occasion (some of the synagogue’s members are Hatzolah responders), nobody in the office of the Reform Temple Beth Hillel nearby had even heard of the group. Neither had Sue Bloom, who has worked for 13 years at Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in the neighborhood.
At Temple Beth Am in Pico-Robertson, Facilities Manager James Collins had heard of Hatzolah in his five years at the Conservative synagogue, but he didn’t have their number. “I’ve seen their units around the area, but I’m not very familiar with them,” he said.