Jewish Journal

The low-budget rescue team

Are the volunteers of Hatzolah a model for emergency rescue teams as community services shrink?

by Jonah Lowenfeld

May 10, 2011 | 6:40 pm

Photo courtesy Hatzolah

Photo courtesy Hatzolah

At 10:32 on a Tuesday morning, exactly seven minutes after he ran out the door of his real estate management office, Steve Fleichman, a volunteer with Hatzolah of Los Angeles, pulled an ambulance up to the front of the Goodwill shop on Beverly Boulevard. Other Hatzolah responders’ cars were already parked outside. Nobody from the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) had arrived yet.

Fleischman, 38, is a broad-shouldered man with a beard and sidelocks tucked behind his ears. He is one of the 86 Orthodox Jewish emergency medical technicians, or EMTs, who work for Hatzolah, the only volunteer ambulance corps in this city. Hatzolah — Hebrew for rescue — is a household name among Orthodox Jews who live in the Hancock Park, Pico-Robertson and Valley Village neighborhoods that the corps serves. But outside the Orthodox community — even among Jews who live, work or worship in those neighborhoods — the group is all but unknown, despite the fact that it just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The name alone, for starters, trips many people up. All three vowels are pronounced “uh,” with the emphasis placed on the middle syllable. Many people who see the word printed on the side of one of the group’s vehicles think it says “Haz Mat.” Others mistake the name for a terrorist organization. “We got Hezbollah a couple of times,” said Ari Stark, a volunteer responder who also works as the unpaid spokesman for the group.

There is also a perception that Hatzolah, which is run and funded by the Orthodox community, provides its services only to the Orthodox. In fact, the group does not ask for or keep track of any patient’s religion or style of Jewish observance and will respond to anyone who calls its number with an emergency taking place within its coverage area.

Nevertheless, most of Hatzolah’s calls do come from Orthodox Jews. This may be, in part, because the number for the Hatzolah hotline is not listed on its Web site — because, Stark said, of the group’s limited coverage. (It is circulated to the group’s mailing list of about 6,000 only on printed matter and promotional materials, like Hatzolah’s toylike ambulance-shaped tzedakah boxes.)

Stark says that Hatzolah is working to change its image among the non-Orthodox. “We want the broader Jewish community to know that there’s an emergency response service that’s free, that’s all-volunteer, that operates 24/7 and that’s available to them,” Stark said.

There are two situations that could instantly raise Hatzolah’s profile in Los Angeles — and neither is good. The first would be if a major earthquake or other disaster were to hit the city. Hatzolah has been preparing for “the big one” since the group’s president saw how long residents of New Orleans were stranded without assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The second could arise as early as next week, if the Los Angeles City Council approves Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s 2011-12 budget, which calls for a $14 million cut to the LAFD budget — over and above the $66 million reduction in funding it has suffered over the last two fiscal years.

The mayor’s plan allocates $481 million for the LAFD and will permanently eliminate 18 fire companies and four LAFD ambulances. It does not call for any fire stations to be closed, nor will any personnel to be laid off.

But the city has not hired a new firefighter since 2009, and if the plan is approved, 31 stations will see their staff numbers reduced.

At Station 58, on Robertson, south of Pico, two fire engines could be eliminated and station staff halved by July. A fact sheet circulated by the LAFD predicts only a “minimal increase to the average response time.”

Critics of the plan have said that even a minimal increase could cost lives. One firefighter, a paramedic who did not want to be named, warned against thinning the ranks of paramedics available to respond. “The old saying is, ‘Never be the second heart attack,’ ” she said.

Hatzolah, which was founded to supplement existing emergency response coverage, not replace it, has encouraged its supporters to contact their representatives about the proposed cuts at Station 58. But if the budget is passed, and response times do increase, Angelenos will be looking for faster ways to get medical care in emergency situations.

Enter Hatzolah — which answered more than 800 emergency calls in 2009 on a budget of just under $250,000 — thanks to a well-organized group of dedicated, trained and community-funded volunteers who boast an average response time to emergencies of less than 90 seconds. Could a small group like this one — which responded to more than 1,200 calls in 2010, one call for every 625 that LAFD did — help pick up the slack? And could it be a model for similar community-based volunteer emergency response groups?

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