Fighting Fire with More Than EMS

I happen to be a proud member of the unit described here in the article below and it is one that more people need to know about so here goes:

United Hatzalah’s network of first responders provides more than emergency medical services (EMS). While the EMS component of the organization is certainly the flagship project, another service which the organization provides for free is the work of the PSychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit made up of psychologists, therapists, and social workers who volunteer their time to provide emotional and psychological stabilization to people affected by a traumatic situation. Whether those people are the victims themselves, or the family or friends of the victims, or simply bystanders who are suffering emotional distress after having witnessed the traumatic incident, the Psychotrauma unit assists them in processing and coping with the experience so that they can return to their normal level of functioning and hopefully avoid the onset of ASR, ASR, and PTSD.

One such incident occurred recently in Jerusalem after a fire broke out in a hotel in the city late one night. The incident occurred just after 2 A.M.

Volunteer EMTs at the scene of the fire in Jerusalem

United Hatzalah volunteer EMTs were on location assisting panicked tourists in escaping the flames, treating the injured parties, supplying them with oxygen and rapidly loading them into ambulances to be rushed to the hospital. The EMTs on scene urgently requested crisis support for traumatized survivors of the inferno. Alon Bruckstein, an advanced level Psychotrauma Unit responder received the call and left his warm bed to rush over to the given address.

He found multiple victims suffering from the onset of an emotional stress reaction, among them young children and the elderly. The patients were stranded outside in the cold without proper clothing or cellphones. Additional Psychotrauma responders arrived on scene to assist. The team distributed blankets to survivors and provided critical emotional support to families. Once the people at the scene were stabilized and their needs were seen to, Bruckstein and other team members headed over to the Bikur Cholim Hospital.

At the hospital, the team worked with nurses on staff to provide those who came from the fire with warm clothing, blankets, food, and water. Bruckstein and his colleagues sat with survivors, jotting down needs and assisting families with their concerns. There were few remaining beds at the hospital to manage the influx of patients; the volunteers contacted the sister hospital in the Shaare Zedek network to ensure that they had space, then ordered taxis to transport those still in need of in-patient care to the second hospital. Among the tasks undertaken by the volunteers for the Psychotrauma Unit were locating and bringing toys for smaller children to comfort them and helped locate a Dutch child who had been separated from his parents.

Members of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit at the hospital with patients after the fire

Once they received the “all clear” from rescue workers, Bruckstein and others headed back to the fire scene. Brucktsein found a few agitated guests still on location outside the hotel, struggling to find their personal effects and documentation. Bruckstein helped one young woman with breathing exercises and guided relaxation techniques, as she was suffering from a severe panic attack. Thanks to his warm presence and skillful intervention, the patient’s condition soon stabilized. 

Throughout the evening, Bruckstein and the rest of the team listened to the survivors with kindness and empathy, providing psychological, practical, and logistical assistance.

“Our job is to help those experiencing a traumatic situation process it and return to the present moment as soon as possible so that they can effectively function and cope with their tragedy,” said Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit Director Avi Tenenbaum. “Our volunteers are specially trained to assess and recognize anyone at the scene of a traumatic incident who is having an emotional stress reaction and to provide immediate treatment and intervention for that person. We do this because we believe it’s the right thing to do and humane to help others in their darkest hour. Second, our hope is to help the patient avoid the development of an emotional stress reaction which, if left untreated, can develop into an emotional stress disorder and if unchecked can later develop into PTSD.”

The Psychotrauma Unit has been active across Israel for the past three years and has treated countless people at the scenes of sudden infant death, suicides, major car accidents, terror attacks, and as part of international humanitarian aid missions. It is the first fully-integrated psychological first aid program that is dispatched together with first responders anywhere in the world.

About the Author
Raphael Poch is a Canadian-Israeli playwright, producer, director, actor and journalist. He is the International Media Spokesperson for United Hatzalah and runs the First City Improv Troupe.
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