Eli Beer has created a strong network of volunteer emergency medical helpers to fill the gap between the first call to ambulance companies in life-threatening situations and the actual arrival time of medical professionals. Through his fleet of ambucycles, several thousand volunteers and training programs, Eli has accelerated response time to within minutes, while additionally bringing Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities together to solve this common yet crucial issue.
The New Idea
Working as a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician himself from the age of 17, Eli saw just how rare it was that an ambulance team was able to navigate the congested streets of Israel to reach an accident victim in time to save his/her life. He also observed that local people, if trained appropriately, could fill the gap in care left between the first call to emergency services and the arrival of the support team—and save lives. Eli’s organization—United Hatzalah (Hebrew for “rescue”)—has approached this problem through the novel use of technology and an ever-expanding volunteer corps that pulls from all communities throughout Israel. His teams are now able to respond to any incident, regardless of location, in under three minutes.
United Hatzalah trains volunteers and then equips them with, among other items, a GPS application for their mobile phone. When an emergency medical situation arises, volunteers within a specific radius are notified and expected to immediately attend the situation. They then provide first response action within three minutes to stabilize the victim until professional help arrives to transport them to a hospital or more secure location.
While his organization was originally based in the Jewish community, the universal need for these services quickly became apparent. The program was promptly scaled to include Arabs and Christians in the volunteer corps. Today, United Hatzalah members respond to any and all accidents, regardless of ethnic origin or religion. This unifying experience has resulted in over 2,000 United Hatzalah volunteers and 200,000 accident victims treated annually. The program has scaled to an international level, with services currently offered in Brazil, Panama, and India.
Israel has been a constant conflict zone since independence in 1948. Terrorist attacks alone have been responsible for thousands of fatalities and injuries over the years, in addition to the emergency situations that routinely occur. Despite the obvious risks of living in an often chaotic and dangerous area, the state has no centralized emergency call system. Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross, is available in most urban areas to send ambulances to accident victims, but that leaves gaps in service in rural areas.
If a victim is able to secure an ambulance in an emergency situation, there still remains the problem of traffic. Israel is a small country, but its population is concentrated: More than half of the land is unpopulated due to difficult desert conditions. According to the Israel government, as of 2011, there were 2.76 million motor vehicles in the state, or 346 vehicles per 1,000 people. While the number of traffic accidents is decreasing each year, Israel still faces issues of traffic congestion that make it nearly impossible for an emergency vehicle to travel quickly.
To compound the issues of constant conflict and traffic congestion, Israel also faces the issue of strong ethnic and religious divides. Communities are widely segregated along Muslim, Jewish, and Christian lines, along with divisions among secular and religious groups, gender roles, and those with refugee or permanent resident status. In spite of the fact that many groups are affected when a terrorist attack or other incident takes place, the reaction is limited, as citizens tend to follow social norms that restrict how they act and respond to crisis. Together these issues create difficult challenges.
When Eli began United Hatzalah at 17, no other organizations were working on similar issues in the region, and his manager at an ambulance company told him there was no need for a new system. Eli persevered and began with his Jewish community in Jerusalem but quickly involved society to approach these issues together. Today, 500 people are treated each day, and his volunteers individually respond to 360 emergency calls annually, completely free of charge.
Eli initially recruited fellow volunteer EMTs in his neighborhood and purchased pagers, with the intention of being notified by ambulance dispatchers of an emergency situation in their area. However, met by opposition from ambulance company managers and his family, Eli purchased a police scanner and began working on his own. After treating several patients prior to the ambulance arrival, people began to have more faith in the operation thus enabling it to scale. The Second Lebanon War (2006) and the chaos it created in the North resulted in Eli’s creation of a coalition of medical emergency organizations across Israel—United Hatzalah.
Today, the 2,000 volunteers of United Hatzalah are trained and certified as EMTs, doctors, or paramedics. Volunteers from all backgrounds are encouraged to join the program, regardless of gender, age, or religious affiliation. After a six-month training program, where participants’ learn basic emergency service response tactics as well as how to work together as a unit, they are dispatched in their communities as lifesaving resources.
Each United Hatzalah volunteer is equipped with a GPS-based application for his or her phone, a bulletproof vest and helmet, burn treatment kit, and defibrillator. Additionally, many volunteers are equipped with an ambucycle, or a modified motorcycle which holds their tools and allows them to move quickly through traffic. When a call comes into United Hatzalah call center, the GPS tracking system is enacted. A radius is drawn around the victim, and volunteers that fall within it are notified of the emergency. They then drop whatever they are doing to respond to the incident. As Eli says, it creates a “lifesaving flash mob” around the scene, where responders arrive within two to three minutes of being alerted.
Bulletproof vests and helmets protect volunteers in situations of terrorist attacks. It empowers and enables them to react regardless of the situation. Utilizing the vests and helmets, volunteers gain access to victims more quickly in precarious situations, where even ambulances and other professionals would be unable to save lives, even if they arrived sooner. Given that with each passing minute after an incident, survival rates decrease by 7 to 10 percent, the vests and helmets are able to make a large impact.
In addition to their emergency response activities, Eli has also created Ten Kavod. This program is intended to build a powerful relationship between the United Hatzalah volunteers and the older, more infirm members of the community. Volunteers perform weekly check ins with participants in the program. These visits include familiarizing the volunteer with a patient’s medical history and previous ailments, a current check on the participant’s blood sugar levels and pressure, and medicine compliance. Through these visits, should an emergency situation arise when United Hatzalah need to be called in, the technicians responding will be well-versed on the elderly patient’s history and personality and be better able to prescribe care.
With Ten Kavod and United Hatzalah, Eli is open to scaling and growing internationally. The programs are easily replicable, and Eli has been able to scale to Brazil, Panama, and recently India with relative ease. Eli would like to grow his organization in two main directions: (i) He would like the Israeli operation to grow to 3,000 volunteers and 500 ambucycles. This would enable United Hatzalah to save more lives—with a target response time cut to 90 seconds or less. (ii) Eli would like to continue replicating the model in other countries—transferring the experience accumulated throughout the last two decades to new communities in need and adjusting the how-tos for new contexts. Similar with Brazil and Panama, a supporter of Eli in the local Jewish community is interested in bringing United Hatzalah to his country. With their support, Eli’s organization then trains a core group in their methodology for the country’s context.
As a six-year-old returning home from school with his brother, Eli witnessed a bus explosion, which affected his life forever. Remembering the incident, he recalls being too frightened to assist an old man calling for help. After that moment, Eli knew he wanted to help others in some way and thought his path would be through medicine.
At age 15, Eli became a volunteer EMT and worked in the ambulance corps. He became aware of the problem of slow response time due to the often winding alleyways of Israel and the constant traffic. While on duty, Eli’s ambulance team took more than half an hour to get to a choking child. Unable to resuscitate the child, Eli was struck by the fact that a doctor lived only blocks away. Had the physician been informed of the emergency, he could have filled the gap in treatment time. These experiences motivated Eli to create United Hatzalah.