In a historic partnership, dozens of local paramedics and technicians from the Hatzalah Volunteer Ambulance Service are being trained by Magen David Adom to field emergency calls in Israel in the event of a major war.
"We have told Magen David that we are ready to go when you need us the most," said Chevra Hatzalah president Heshy Jacob, who hopes to have 60 volunteers trained and ready before the High Holy Days.
The volunteers, who are training here and in Israel, would assume civilian duties to relieve medics called into army service. But Hatzalah officials see a second benefit: Their medics are learning how to respond to a terrorist attack ó skills they may one day need in New York.
The program is in response to Israelís fear that it could find itself in a war with one or many Arab states on its borders while Palestinians wage continued or increased terror attacks within Israel and its territories. There is fear also of a missile attack, such as in the 1991 Gulf War, which could include nuclear, chemical or biological weapons involving unprecedented civilian casualties. That fear has been compounded by increased discussion of a second U.S. attack on Iraq as part of the war on terrorism.
"In 1967 and 1973, the threat was very different," said Chaim Rafalowski, MDA’s director of emergency operations, during a visit to New York this week to supervise the training program. "Then, Magen David Adom only assisted in transporting the wounded [from the fronts]. The next war will be at home.
"Israel expects us to run as many ambulances as we can during [a conflict] that could take many weeks to win."
Hatzalah, Hebrew for rescue, would "in our time of need provide us with volunteers on very short notice who would assist us in our missions," said Rafalowski.
Adam Cohen, a 30-year-old banker who answers Hatzalah calls on the Upper East Side, took part in the training last week. He signed up for the program even though it might mean leaving his wife, Marcy, and their infant son in New York to put himself in danger.
"My wife was naturally hesitant, but she understands that this is a program that I need to be part of, and she’s very supportive," said Cohen, who became an Israeli citizen in 1999 and has volunteered with Magen David Adom in the past.
At the training session last week, he and some 40 others gathered at the Ramaz School, where Rafalowski detailed MDA’s operations and protocols. Rafalowski also discussed response plans for mass casualty incidents, including those involving weapons of mass destruction or hazardous materials.
"He covered the different roles that providers need to cover based on when they arrive at an incident and the importance of triaging for the initial responders, as well as methods of patient evacuation and scene safety," said Cohen.
While most of the volunteers have responded to mass casualty incidents, such as auto crashes or other accidents, they are aware that responding to a bomb blast is completely different.
"They’ve gotten it much more down to a science and had much more operational experience, unfortunately, than we have here," said Cohen, who recalled a Bronx car crash with six injured as his most serious emergency call.
After their New York training, the volunteers will travel to Israel to ride with MDA medics, at least one of whom would be present with the Americans during a crisis to help with geography and language barriers.
Cohen said that while there was no pressure placed on Hatzalah members to volunteer for this duty, officials did stress that it was crucial for those who undergo the training to be committed.
"Our members will not hesitate to go, no matter what the circumstances," said Cohen. "It’s almost a no-brainer if they call us and there is a critical shortage. They know that they might have to face multi-casualty incidents, but also the old lady who fell and can’t get up."
Although Magen David Adom was founded 20 years before the establishment of Israel, and Hatzalah has been saving lives in Jewish communities since the late 1960s, the two organizations had no formal ties until several months ago.
The initiative was a response both to the ongoing carnage in Israel and the threat of a wider conflict, as well as the realization that New York is increasingly vulnerable to terror.
David Shipper, a Hatzalah board member and spokesman, said "9-11 brought home a much greater awareness that we need to have to have the highest level of protection in serving our community. There is more of a threat to our patients as victims than we’ve seen before."
Some 200 Hatzalah medics responded to the World Trade Center attack, the worst terror incident in U.S. history, transporting 133 victims to local hospitals and treating dozens more on the scene. But Jacob said learning from Israelí"s experience was the best way to be prepared. "We’re going to where the book was written," he said.
The volunteers, all Orthodox males, range from single yeshiva students to heads of households. All have been warned of the risks associated with responding to terror attacks; secondary explosives sometimes are timed to kill medics and policemen. And just last week, medics arriving at the scene of a fatal shooting near the West Bank settlement of Alei Zahav came under heavy gunfire, although none was injured.
"There are no 100 percent guarantees," said Rafalowski, who says terrorists are believed to study ambulance response patterns. But he said only three medics have died in the past two years out of more than 2,000 MDA employees. Rafalowski said statistics showed a greater risk of medics being injured in traffic accidents.
Jacob said he initially feared that the danger might cause some volunteers to drop out of the program. "The opposite happened," he said. "More people signed up."
With 850 volunteers staffing almost 60 ambulances in the five boroughs and in Nassau County on Long Island, Chevra Hatzalah is believed to be the largest volunteer ambulance corps in the nation. (Hatzalah organizations in New Jersey, elsewhere in New York State and other areas of North America cooperate with Chevra Hatzalah but are separate entities.)
Jacob said that makes this operation one of the largest organized relief efforts on behalf of Israel in history. "We are the largest and the best trained," he said.
Shipper added that Chevra Hatzalah would serve as a "clearinghouse" to train volunteers from other non-affiliated Hatzalah groups who want to take part in the program.
Before heading back to Israel last week, Rafalowski said he was impressed with the caliber and professionalism of the Hatzalah volunteers.
"We are confident that we can put them in a Magen David Adom ambulance and they will be able to respond to anything," he said, "from a terror attack to someone with chest pains."