It’s five o’clock on a Saturday and you’re having chest pains. What are you going to do?
For years residents have called 9-1-1 for medical emergencies, and dispatchers there have sent an ambulance from Highland Park First Aid Squad. A new option is coming soon, but local officials want to make sure that residents know what it means to exercise that option.
Chevra Hatzolah of Edison Township is an ambulance service whose crew members are familiar with and sensitive to Jewish law. Located in Highland Park’s neighboring community of Edison, Chevra Hatzolah – loosely translated from Hebrew, the name means “group of lifesavers” – officially opened its doors at midnight Nov. 9.
And that has borough officials mildly concerned.
At issue is the question of emergency response. When a resident calls 9-1-1, dispatchers send not only an ambulance from the Highland Park First Aid Squad, but also a police car. Police officers often are the first responders, making them an indispensable part of the borough’s 9-1-1 system.
If a patient calls Chevra Hatzolah instead, a dispatcher at the Edison headquarters would contact two emergency medical technicians(EMT) in the area who would drive to the location in their own cars, as well as a driver in an ambulance who would meet the EMTs on site.
The dispatcher also would have the discretion to summon a Medevac helicopter, police or other emergency responders as needed – but police would not be dispatched routinely as they are with 9-1-1 calls.
In September alone, the borough 9-1-1 system received 71 requests for an ambulance. Police, dispatched to each of those calls, are trained to use medical equipment in their squad cars, ranging from oxygen to defibrillators.
“We’re typically first on the scene,” said Capt. Scott Golden. “We do everything from putting Band-Aids on somebody to CPR.”
Like Highland Park First Aid Squad, Chevra Hatzolah is an all-volunteer organization. A letter from Chevra Hatzolah to Highland Park Police Chief Rizco states that all its medical volunteers are at least 18 and at a minimum are trained emergency medical technicians, although some may be paramedics, nurses or doctors. They also are trained to work with police departments and not to interfere with crime scenes.
What makes the organization different is the familiarity its members have with Jewish law, culture and custom, to a degree normally not expected from a non-religious affiliated ambulance service.
“We’re not trying to compete with anyone,” said Fishel Erps, executive director of Chevra Hatzolah of Edison Township. “The main goal is to provide care to the community, with all the sensitivity to the Orthodox community.”
Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, observed Saturdays, carries with it a number of restrictions that might make a more conservative or Orthodox Jew reluctant to go to the hospital. For instance, the Talmudic proscription against starting fires during Shabbat among the more Orthodox has come to include a ban on driving, since ignition requires starting a controlled fire in the engine.
There are further restrictions on travel, as well as on other things, all of which may make people uncertain in some situations whether it is religiously permissible to go the hospital, or even to accompany someone there.
“There’s a whole bunch of things like that,” said Mr. Erps. But since Chevra Hatzolah volunteers will have studied areas of Jewish law relevant to medical services, they will be able to assure patients authoritatively when exceptions to Jewish law are acceptable. “That’s what we’re attempting to do.”
Executive Director Erps stressed that even though Chevra Hatzolah expects to promote its services at temples in Highland Park, the organization is focusing its energies on Edison residents. But Highland Park residents who request an Chevra Hatzolah ambulance service will not be turned away and in the end that’s a situation everyone is fine with and wants to make sure works well for everyone.
As Council President Padraic Millet said at the meeting, “It’s certainly within anyone’s rights to call an outside service.”