Hatzolah Volunteer Emergency Medical Rescue Squad, long a fixture in New York, just went public in Los Angeles, serving a circumscribed area of the mostly Orthodox Beverly-La Brea Jewish community and becoming the only volunteer Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) corps in the city.
While New York Hatzolah, founded 25 years ago and now one of the largest volunteer emergency corps in the world, has its own fleet of ambulances and hundreds of trained volunteers, the Los Angeles group is more limited in its ambition.
"As a whole, the 911 rescue system in Los Angeles is rated above average, but it's not perfected, and occasionally it could happen that a certain time elapses between when the emergency occurs and when 911 appears at the scene," explains Tzvi Brenner, Hatzolah of Los Angeles president and an EMT. "The purpose of Hatzolah volunteers is to provide that life-saving bridge during those first critical moments."
Hatzolah of Los Angeles, which operates independently of the New York group, has no ambulances and does not provide any hospital transport. The group takes pains to emphasize that it is not a replacement for 911, but a complement to it. When someone calls the Hatzolah dispatcher with an emergency, her first question is "Did you call 911?"
Emergency response time in the Beverly-La Brea neighborhood averages six to eight minutes -- if the local paramedics are not out on another call. But Hatzolah volunteers all live and work in the neighborhood, and for that reason, the average Hatzolah response time is 60 to 90 seconds.
Those few moments can be critical, especially in cases of cardiac arrest or respiratory distress.
Hatzolah in Los Angeles started about three years ago as part of the Avraham Moshe Bikur Cholim Jewish Healthcare Society, under the leadership of Rabbi Heshy Ten. At the time, about 15 volunteers were trained as first responders, a level below EMT. They were not on call, but rather were teachers at Jewish day schools or members of local synagogues. If an emergency arose at their site, they responded.
Rabbi Mordechai Dubin, a teacher at Maimonides Day School, was trained as an EMT and certified CPR instructor when he lived in Georgia.
Dubin is on the Hatzolah board and has been a volunteer for the past few years. The staff at his school come to him with medical situations that go beyond what the school secretary can handle -- one child recently had severe hyperventilation, another an anaphylactic reaction.
"I think that although the plan had been to provide services for synagogues and schools, there was a strong feeling that Hatzolah should branch out to be something that could provide care for the community at large," Dubin says.
The decision was made to make the service available to the community through a well-publicized 24-hour hotline.
To start off, the group needed to raise funds -- about $150,000 for start-up, then about $50,000 a year to run the operation. Targeted donors have already put up about $80,000, and the Rechnitz family, owners of Twin Med, donated about $50,000 worth of equipment.
About 30 volunteers -- all Orthodox men who are businessmen, professionals, rabbis and students -- took 120 hours of training to become certified EMTs. They also went on ride-alongs with local fire department paramedics to gain hands-on experience and to get to know local emergency personnel.
In early September, a letter went out to residents of the neighborhood introducing Hatzolah -- with a roster of endorsements from community rabbis and doctors -- and providing stickers with the hotline phone number.
Ten women from the community were trained to cover a state-of-the-art dispatch system in shifts from their homes.
When a call comes through, after ascertaining the nature of the emergency and that 911 has been summoned, the dispatcher locates the nearest volunteer and sends him to the site, along with a backup volunteer and more EMTs if necessary.
The volunteers who arrive at the scene administer whatever medical treatment is necessary until the paramedics arrive. They are not authorized to dispense drugs.
Each volunteer is equipped with kits to deal with everything from gunshot wounds to delivering a baby. Hatzolah currently has eight defibrillators, a device that can revive heart attack victims.
As soon as the ambulance arrives, Hatzolah fills in the paramedics on the medical situation and does everything to ensure a smooth transition to the ambulance personnel. If the patient wants, the volunteer will ride with them to the hospital.
Hatzolah offers a measure of comfort to a community that is culturally distinct.
"A high percentage of residents are Holocaust survivors, and many of them have a fear of the uniform," says Chaim Kolodny, Hatzolah's coordinator. "But if it's the grocer, the baker, the person who comes to fix their lights -- these are people from their community and they feel more comfortable."
In addition, language barriers and religious issues may unnecessarily interfere with getting proper medical attention.
"On Shabbos or Yom Tov people may neglect their health, and our members are trained extensively in the halachic guidelines," says Kolodny, director of the Los Angeles Cheder and the Bais Tzivia girls' school.
Hatzolah operates under the authority of a halachic opinion from the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who gave Hatzolah of New York blanket dispensation to violate the laws of Shabbat or Yom Tov to save the life or well-being of a person. Volunteers, like doctors, are not required to ask a rabbi about specific situations.
So far, county and city emergency officials are impressed with Hatzolah's professionalism.
"The relationship Hatzolah has developed with responding fire and police departments demonstrates your commitment to cooperate with the existing EMS system and facilitate seamless transition of patient care in emergency situations," wrote Dr. Samuel Stratton, medical director of the Emergency Medical Services Agency for the county health department, in a letter after meeting with Brenner. "We welcome Hatzolah's efforts to supplement local emergency response resources."
Hatzolah activists have met with County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, representatives from the mayor's office and the City Council, and the sheriff, police and fire departments -- all of whom have been highly impressed with Hatzolah and supportive of its work.
At the suggestion of Los Angeles Fire Chief William Bamattre, who met with Hatzolah and was enthusiastic about its work, Hatzolah is now exploring the possibility of becoming a Certified Emergency Response Team, which can be called by the city to respond in the event of a large-scale emergency.
Meanwhile, word of Hatzolah has spread outside the neighborhood, and other communities want Hatzolah to extend its service.
"Right now, for the next eight to 12 months, we will concentrate here, making the best program possible," Kolodny says. "Then we can take a look and study it and see how it went and how we can expand."
Hatzolah's service area is bordered by Rossmore to the east, Willoughby to the north, Fairfax to the west and Olympic on the south. Hatzolah's emergency hotline number is (323) 931-6460. The nonemergency number is (323) 931-6453, www.hatzolah.org .