Israel’s United Hatzalah EMS Organization Drills Mass Casualty Incidents
Jews and Arabs unite to save lives
On a quiet Wednesday evening in Ofer Park, in the central Israeli city of Ramla, a bus crashes, and smoke billows. Nearby, a bridge collapses, and wounded are strewn across the tarmac, displaying a spectrum of gruesome injuries.
Some victims are hysterical, some are crying for help, while others don’t move. Somewhere in the distance, ambulance sirens wail.
A radio message has just been transmitted to United Hatzalah volunteers in the area. This is only a drill, it says, a suspected terrorist attack on a bus.
This time, there is no attack, no crash, and the smoke hanging over the scene is seeping from fog machines. The wounded victims? Local high school students covered in makeup and prosthetics.
Yet the reaction from United Hatzalah volunteers is astounding. In under a minute, the first responders are on the scene, clearing the area and assessing the threat level.
Once it has been established that no terror attack has taken place, hundreds of paramedics, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and operational managers pour onto the scene, assessing injuries by reading tags around the necks of the “victims,” providing medical assistance, and assigning degrees of urgency to wounded patients.
This is the seventh event of its kind conducted by United Hatzalah this year, which hopes to have every one of its Israeli volunteers participate in a similar exercise.
According to Raphael Poch, English-language spokesperson at United Hatzalah of Israel, the number of mass casualty incidents (MCIs) has risen dramatically over the past year, proving a clear need to train staff in how to deal with large, chaotic environments in which hundreds of medical staff and volunteers must coordinate their efforts.
This unfortunate chain of events began with the Meron crowd crush in the Upper Galilee in April 2021, where 45 people were killed and 150 injured during the Lag BaOmer holiday. That tragedy was then swiftly followed by the synagogue bleacher collapse in Givat Ze’ev, northwest of Jerusalem, in May, which killed two and wounded 184, and a large bus accident in the North in September.
As Poch explained to The Media Line, there were two major incidents close together, and the organization recognized, “Hey, we haven’t had serious mass casualty incidents since the bus bombings in 2002, 2003, and now we’re suddenly having them again, but on the civilian front. We need to train for that.”
He characterized the cost of holding such startlingly realistic drills as “A lot!” but added, “It’s worth it because we saw that when we had another mass casualty in September, with the bus collapse, there was a much better response! People knew what they were doing. People knew how to handle it.”
Dov Maisel, vice president of operations for United Hatzalah, explained to The Media Line, “An MCI exercise, mass casualty incident exercise, is where we train our volunteers how to deal with, and respond to, a mass casualty incident of different scenarios.
“Should an incident like this happen, the first people to arrive are the volunteers from the community, and here they are from United Hatzalah. Therefore, it’s important to train them in triage, in transport, prioritizing, practicing scene command, and passing on the baton of scene command in the hierarchy,” he continued.
United Hatzalah has also been active overseas of late, sending support teams to Florida following the Surfside condominium collapse in June 2021, and to provide relief in Ukraine.
Reuven Elgad was part of the team sent to Ukraine. Having completed his dentistry studies at a university in neighboring Moldova, he speaks Russian and Romanian.
As Elgad told The Media Line, his wife was seven months’ pregnant when he got the call from United Hatzalah, yet “she understood that it was my duty, so she let me go.”
As Elgad spoke, another volunteer joked that he had become something of a celebrity due to his outstanding service in Ukraine.
Essentially, Elgad reconnected with members of the Jewish community of Moldova, whom he knew from his student days, asking them to provide whatever help they could to the refugees passing through the border from Ukraine.
Then Elgad enlisted his old university faculty.
“When I came to the Republic of Moldova, I went to the university where I studied, and asked all the professors, doctors, if they can help us with the refugees, with treatment, dermatology, wisdom tooth pains… They told me no problem,” he said.
Ramla, Maisel explained, “is a mixed city of Jews and Arabs, and so the volunteers are mixed Jews and Arabs, so they are responding together as they do on a regular day-to-day response.
“To bring them together with one mission that’s uncontroversial, saving lives, really builds additional bridges in the community,” he added.
Baha Sader, a volunteer ambulance driver and EMT from United Hatzalah’s heavily Muslim east Jerusalem chapter, said, “Every day, I’m going to help the people. I don’t care whether they’re Muslims, Jews, Christians. We are human beings, so we have to help humanity.”
Natanel Cannon, a medic in the IDF since 2005 and a volunteer for United Hatzalah for the past two years, explained that the volunteers do not come together because of politics or religion.
“We have one common goal: saving lives. Whoever wants to join in that goal, it doesn’t matter if you’re Jew or non-Jew, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, we have one cause, that’s saving lives,” he said.
Aron Rosenthal is a student at the University of Edinburgh and an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.