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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Hatzolah of Los Angeles may be the only Hatzolah chapter in the world with a detailed plan to respond to large-scale emergencies. Even though Brenner helped found the chapter, on a recent Sunday morning he seemed particularly excited to demonstrate this newest aspect of the group’s operation.
Brenner, 59, works for a company that supplies specialty doors and windows to contractors. He moved to Los Angeles from Israel in 1975, and, like many Angelenos, he believes a massive disaster at some point in the future is inevitable. “It’s not a question of if,” Brenner said. “It’s a question of when.”
Brenner calls the dark blue bakery truck parked behind the Yeshivat Yavneh School in Hancock Park a “garage on wheels.” It is stuffed — very neatly — with fold-up cots, medical supplies, generators, halogen lights and large blue plastic drums filled with clean water for washing — everything a group of responders might need to establish a small field hospital.
When a massive disaster hits Los Angeles, Hatzolah will be able to serve 50 patients at a time and will have enough supplies to care for 500 patients in total at the Yavneh School. The organization has at the ready two more trailers with similar materials in Pico-Robertson and Valley Village.
The group has dealt with disaster before: In 2003, Hatzolah volunteers responded to the crash of a light aircraft into a building on Fairfax, and in 2008 they were ready to deploy when the Metrolink train crashed in Chatsworth. But in anticipation of that really big emergency, Brenner and his team will continue to run drills and to check that supplies are up to date and stocked up, just in case.
Frank Quiambao, special adviser to the secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency, is very supportive of the preparatory work Hatzolah is doing.
Should the catastrophic event occur — and, like all emergency preparedness professionals, Quiambao is certain it is only a matter of time before it does — Quiambao said community groups will have an essential role to play.
“We know that public agencies are not going to be able to handle it,” Quiambao said. “They’re going to be overwhelmed, so we have to get organizations like Hatzolah to be equal partners with us.”
“It is a partnership that is made in heaven,” Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Millage Peaks said of the cooperation between LAFD and Hatzolah. Prior to his promotion, Peaks worked closely with Hatzolah as a battalion chief at Station 61 on West Third Street, just west of La Brea Boulevard — right in the heart of Hatzolah’s service area. Peaks was honored at the recent gala dinner.
As fire chief, Peaks’ job is to figure out how to manage a department of 3,500 firefighters, who in 2010 responded to 795,693 emergency calls, but with an ever-shrinking pool of city funds. “They give me the money, they tell me to manage it, and I manage it the best way that I can,” Peaks said in a recent interview.
Peaks suggested that in a time of budgetary crisis like the one we’re in now, groups like Hatzolah help alleviate some of the increased pressure on public safety agencies. “We were real hopeful that the economy would’ve turned around by now, but the revenues aren’t coming in,” Peaks said. “This partnership is more important now than it ever has been.”
That was in March. In April, Villaraigosa unveiled his citywide budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2011, and this one allocates only $481 million to LAFD – down $14 million from the prior year. In response, Peaks has proposed a new deployment plan, which would permanently close 18 fire companies and leave four ambulances sitting unstaffed, in “ready reserve,” at stations around the city.
While LAFD is trying to downplay the impact of budget cuts on response times, Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, takes a different view of the effect of the proposed closures on patient outcomes. “Lives will be lost because of it,” McOsker told the Los Angeles Times in late April.
McOsker, who leads the union that represents LAFD firefighters, is an outspoken critic of Hatzolah. He worries about a lack of coordination between LAFD and Hatzolah responders, and worked to stop the volunteers from being authorized to drive vehicles equipped with lights and sirens. “I have real concerns about patient care and about the danger of them driving emergency,” McOsker said.
At Hazolah’s gala dinner in March, no such opinions were in evidence, and many public officials said Hatzolah can be particularly helpful in a time of belt-tightening. “We all have a role in lifting up our community in times like these,” California State Assemblyman Mike Feuer said. Feuer helped Hatzolah get permission to use lights and sirens on its vehicles from CHP. “Hatzolah is an important program now. It’s an important program in all times.”
In 2009, the most recent year for which data is publicly available, Hatzolah spent just $233,688 on its operations (yes, that’s thousands). The group has no paid staff; even its bookkeeper and Web designers are volunteers. Most, if not all, of the group’s funds come from individual donations.
Hatzolah responded to about 800 calls in 2009, and it is possible many of those were calls the LAFD didn’t have to get. (Neither Hatzolah nor LAFD keeps track of how frequently the two groups work together.) And cash-strapped cities are now trying to think creatively about how to make use of volunteer workers to do jobs they can no longer afford to pay public-sector workers to do. The city of Redlands in San Bernardino County, for example, was featured in the April 2011 issue of the magazine Governing, in an article titled “Does Government Work Require Government Employees?” The Redlands police force, which has 75 sworn officers, is now aided by nearly 300 active volunteers who manage crime scenes, patrol city parks, write parking tickets and do other assorted jobs once reserved for uniformed personnel.
And although Hatzolah of Los Angeles does not intend to seek public funding to assist in its efforts, other Jewish volunteer ambulance corps have taken public money. In July 2010, the New York Jewish Week reported that Chevra Hatzalah, a volunteer ambulance group in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, accepted a $445,000 capital grant from its local New York state assemblywoman. The 35-year-old group, which had never before accepted public funding, used the grant to improve its communications systems.
Hatzolah of Los Angeles cannot replace LAFD, and it’s quite clear that the group wouldn’t wish to. Shortly after the proposed cuts to fleet and staff at Station 58 became public — large red signs in front of the station announce the looming cuts to passers-by — Hatzolah began letting people in Pico-Robertson know about the plan and encouraging them to contact their elected officials.
Whatever the reason, citizens have been calling. As of May 6, City Councilman Paul Koretz’s office had received about 50 phone calls and 25 e-mails about the proposed cuts to service at LAFD Station 58.