NEW YORK (PIX11) — It’s a common sight in Israeli cities, but parked recently on Third Avenue near 52nd Street was a vehicle never seen before in New York.
“This is an ambulance on two wheels,” said the driver of what appeared to be a very well-equipped delivery motorbike. “An ambucycle.” He was Eli (pronounced “Elly”) Beer, the founder of United Hatzalah, an Israeli all-volunteer emergency medical service, or EMS, organization.
The word “Hatzalah” means “rescue” in Hebrew. Beer’s organization, United Hatzalah is the largest volunteer EMS group in Israel, and is unaffiliated with Hatzalah services here in New York.
Another way Beer’s group is distinct from New York Hatzalah organizations is the motorbike he was on when he was interviewed by PIX11 News.
“You pull this out,” Beer said as he pulled a 14- by 18- by 18-inch cube-shaped kit by its two handles out of a cargo box on the back of his motorbike, “And you have an ambulance, in a bag.” The emergency kit was equipped with an oxygen tank and breathing apparatus as well as a defibrillator, a full triage pack, bandages and a wide array of other hardware needed to treat a person in severe trauma.
And it’s all found on a vehicle which, thanks to its maneuverability and speed, can get to the scene of an emergency call very quickly. “Now in Jerusalem, it’s 90 seconds,” said Beer, a resident of the Israeli capital city, where his organization is based.
“I drive through traffic in Jerusalem, nothing stops me. Nothing.” he told PIX11 News. That rapid response is key, he pointed out. “They have two minutes [after a traumatic episode] before brain damage starts.”
Beer took this reporter on a ride through Midtown traffic on his ambucycle. His was a full mockup of the hundreds of emergency medical motorbikes that are called into action at a moment’s notice throughout Israel. Beer’s ambucycle easily maneuvered around semis, between cars, and at times squeezed through spaces as tight as a foot and-a-half between large vehicles.
It was a clear demonstration that heavy rush hour traffic was no match for the ambucycle. “I promise you that you could reduce death in half with these things,” Beer said. “I did it in Israel.”
World Bank statistics show that Israel’s death rate over the last decade has dropped noticeably, from 5.7 per 1000 people to 5.2, since Elly Beer’s fast, versatile ambucycles helped to make an impact. The decline in deaths parallels the drop in response times, in which the Israeli ambucycle force has played a significant role.
The comparison between the 90-second average response time in Jerusalem with emergency response times in New York is stark. New York City’s own statistics show that the median response time in the Big Apple is 4 minutes, 48 seconds.
“Many times, I see ambulances get stuck in traffic,” said Jeff Buchman, a hedge fund analyst who happened to be walking by where Beer was showing his ambucycle. “And I wonder,” said Buchman, “‘Wow, are they going to get to be where they need to be in time?'”
Similarly impressed was a retired NYPD captain, who’d been a motorcycle cop during his tenure. Now, though, Jeff Fortunato is the chief of the police department in Sea Gate, a gated, self-governed, seaside community in Brooklyn. “I’m sure you’ve seen fire engines and police cars just sitting in traffic, with their lights spinning and sirens blaring,” said Chief Fortunato, who’d also seen the ambucycle as he passed by on Third Avenue, “but the ability to move people is greatly enhanced when you have vehicles like this,” he said.
The ambucycle’s rapid response time isn’t only due to its design, as Beer pointed out. “In Israel, we have thousands of people connected on this app,” he said, as he showed off features on his iPhone. “It’s called Nowforce. The system will find the closest people to the call.”
The app connects thousands of first responders, around the clock who, whether they’re working or not, can respond to a call immediately. Nowforce’s dispatchers are based in Israel, but their software works everywhere.
It works for victims as well as first responders. Tens of thousands of subscribers to the free app can click on a tab that alerts a dispatcher that there is a possible emergency, and since every cellphone doubles as a mobile tracking device, the dispatcher knows immediately where the emergency is. If the user is well enough to speak, he or she can tell the dispatcher details of the problem.
Beer demonstrated. “Where am I now?” He asked his dispatcher, based in Jerusalem.
“In New York, point of 850 Third Avenue,” came the response, to which Beer responded in turn, lest the operators in his office think the worst. “I’m okay,” he said. “I was almost kidnapped by this television station, Channel 11, but I’m okay,” he joked, adding that Nowforce can also be used to foil kidnappings, which are a more present danger in Israel than in New York.
United Hatzalah’s entire operation is done on a small budget of about $6 million per year, thanks in no small part to its army of volunteers, and to donors, like the organization’s chairman.
Mark Gerson gives about $1 million yearly to United Hatzalah, from his own pocket. Gerson is also president of the Gerson Lehrman Group, a venture capital firm.
“It was obvious,” he told PIX11 in an interview, “that the return on investment for each philanthropic dollar was like nothing I’d ever seen before.”
Beer echoed the businessman’s analysis about the economic impact of United Hatzalah’s lifesaving activities. “The financial value of it is huge. Forget about saving a life. You save a whole family,” said Beer. When the number of lives saved, and long-term medical conditions reduced through rapid treatment of trauma are compounded, he said, “We save the country hundreds of millions of dollars.”
It’s a benefit the organization said that the New York Metro Area could benefit from. “What we’d like to do is help New Yorkers get what Israelis get,” Gerson said.
He’s by no means the only big businessman who’s a supporter. The man listed as 13th on the Forbes 400 list has also endorsed the ambucycle/Nowforce concept. That man also happens to be New York’s mayor, multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg.
He not only dedicated an ambucycle during a trip to Israel in 2005, the vehicle was purchased by donors who dedicated it to him. An Israeli ambucycle literally bears Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s name — a sign declaring so is attached to the ambucycle’s cargo container.
It’s logical to conclude that if the mayor has shown support for ambucycles in the past, he’d be a supporter now. He is, but as he pointed out to PIX11 News, that does not mean the concept can be adapted here in New York.
Bloomberg said that after seeing his first ambucycle in Israel in 2005, he consulted with the fire commissioner about using them in New York City. “State law, I believe, requires that each emergency call have two paramedics,” the mayor said. “I’m definitely a supporter.” Because of state laws regarding emergency response, he called the use of ambucycles in New York “impractical.”
However, when Eli Beer first came up with the ambucycle concept 16 years ago, he met with similar opposition from authorities. Specifically in Israel, there was a well-entrenched EMS union that insisted on using ambulances solely, rather than supplementing them with ambucycles.
He went ahead with the concept anyway, without the blessing of any regulatory authorities. “Our mission in life is to make sure the people around us are safe,” Beer said.
He said that he’s not at all interested in replacing ambulances, but wants to instead supplement their strengths with the nimble, quick ambucycles that respond so rapidly.
Short of a change in state legislation, it may take a bold, independent move by EMTs here in New York, in a way similar to how Beer moved forward in Israel, in order to get ambucycles on the streets here. While he encourages concerned people to work with authorities, he’s also hopeful that somehow the first response concept he pioneered in the Middle East can take hold here.
“It happened in Israel,” Beer said. “It can happen in New York.”