Volunteer organizations mobilize emergency services

Yad Sarah volunteers assist a wheelchair-bound Jerusalem resident.While most Israelis were prepared for the worst and hoped for the best on the home front as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” unfolded, many took the time to worry about helping others.The Yad Sarah …

Yad Sarah volunteers assist a wheelchair-bound Jerusalem resident.While most Israelis were prepared for the worst and hoped for the best on the home front as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” unfolded, many took the time to worry about helping others.

The Yad Sarah organization, which provides medical equipment and support for the handicapped, offered its small army of 6,000 volunteers to the Home Front Command to help address the needs of the handicapped, elderly, and infirm.

When the order went out from the Israel Defense Forces to seal rooms with plastic sheeting and duct tape, and to assemble gas masks, Yad Sarah volunteers immediately headed to hundreds of homes of the elderly and handicapped to assist them in sealing their rooms and preparing their masks. In addition, the organization is ready 24 hours a day to provide oxygen, medicines and medical equipment for the homebound as needed, and their fleet of mobile vans were ready to meet increased demand in case of war.

“As the tensions have increased, we are working closely together with the Home Front Command of the army as well as the equivalent of the Red Cross, the Magen David Adom,” says Yad Sarah’s spokesman David Rothner.

“From our first-hand experience in the Gulf War 11 years ago, we learned that Yad Sarah was called upon to provide transportation to the wheelchair and home-bound, as well as bring them medicines, medical equipment, urgently needed oxygen and medical supplies, and food. Of the 13,000 people permanently connected to our 24-hour alarm system, Yad Sarah stands ready to provide a calming voice encouragement when the sirens announce an air raid. Yad Sarah is coaching its staff to meet this challenge as we expect the number of calls to our alarm center to increase considerably if a war begins.”

Operating in 97 branches throughout Israel, Yad Sarah loans out medical equipment of all types, from wheel chairs to oxygen, provides transportation to the homebound and injured, sometimes in bullet proof vans, delivers homecare equipment, supplies legal aid, geriatric dentistry, works with children who have special needs, including victims of terror attacks, provides meals on wheels to the homebound, operates a 24-hour a day alarm center, and more. All these services and many more are provided free or at a nominal fee for anyone need whether they are Jewish, Muslim, Christian Israeli citizens or tourists.

Other organizations prepared to assist in distributing medication to the disabled if needed in an emergency situation, and volunteers were lined up to spend the night in hospitals and old age homes in order to assist the population in the case of emergency: more were on call as needed.

Caro Hoon, 41, from Jerusalem, a volunteer with the Sar-El organization told the newspaper Ha’aretz that “the moment those sirens sound, I’m supposed to be in a hospital.”

The infrastructure was put in place after the first Gulf War experience taught that the elderly and handicapped had great difficulty preparing their sealed rooms and organizing their gas masks.

A special hotline was set up by the United Jewish Communities and the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel for Americans and other English-speakers in Israel who needed assistance, and worried relatives abroad who might have trouble locating family or who had questions regarding travel to Israel.

“We’re trying to emphasize that people in Israel are here to support each other,” said Chaim Jutcowitz, AACI national development director, who helped organize the effort.

But overall, the level of panic in Israel has been impressively low. A far smaller number of Israelis in the center of the country sought refuge in hotels in the north and south or abroad than expected: most stayed put in their homes.

A poll in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot showed that 84 per cent of the Tel Aviv region’s 2 million people did not plan to leave. Across the country, life went on as usual. Weddings and other special occasions took place, gas masks in hand. The vast majority of Israelis went to work and attended school, following the government?s encouragement for business to continue as usual.

A Manufacturers Association telephone survey of 50 enterprises reported regular attendance rates “except for one or two central Israel ventures.” The Histadrut labor federation advised members to go to their workplaces as no state of emergency had been declared. Only on the first day of the war were the numbers of those who strayed from their routines significant. On that day, there was a rate of 20 percent for worker absenteeism in greater Tel Aviv, largely stemming from the decision of many parents not to send their children to school on that first day. Those who stayed home from work in Jerusalem, northern and southern Israel did not exceed 5 percent.