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March 21, 2013 2:08 am

Magen David Adom Chief: We Will be Able to Deal with Unseen Emergencies

avatar by Zach Pontz

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Magen David Adom (MDA) personnel tend to a man injured in the bombing of a tour bus carrying Israelis in Bulgaria. Photo: MDA Israel.

There are few, if any, national emergency services as important to a country as Magen David Adom (MDA) is to Israel. A country perpetually at risk of attack, MDA is not only responsible for providing anything from ambulances and blood to disaster relief assistance, it also serves as something of a support system to the millions of Israelis who live with the constant fear of a new conflict erupting.

An indispensable part of the fabric of the Jewish state, MDA, with its 1,200 paid employees, 13,000 volunteers and reliance on donations to fill in its budget, is mostly reliant on the goodwill of citizens from around the world.

The Algemeiner recently caught up with MDA director of international affairs Yoni Yagodovsky about the organization’s domestic concerns, its international diplomacy and how the organization helps bridge divisions within Israeli society.

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On threats in the North:

We know that there is the potential of an escalation in the north. Whether it will be from Syria, Lebanon, whatever—it’s a problem. But there’s an upside to that: we already experienced that in 2006. And we do know what is the potential, it is much bigger now. But at the same time we’ve learned our lessons. So we are building capacity. For example: we have more ambulances that are in emergency storage; that are not used on a daily basis but are ready to go if there is an escalation and we need additional life saving vehicles in places, without compromising our capacity in other parts of the country. We have more medical supplies, we have built bigger bomb shelters.

On the logic behind MDA training:

Our preparedness is all about being able to respond at any given time or at any place in the country—for one event or multiple events—and at the same time have enough teams to deal with routine medical emergencies. We have to be able to continue to provide regular emergency medical services even in times of escalation.

How confident are you in MDA’s preparation?

I’m very optimistic but I don’t want to brag. I can’t tell you for sure that we could respond to any given threat. But I can say that MDA will be able to deal with unseen emergencies and scenarios that we have not experienced yet.

MDA’s role in the greater Israeli emergency network:

We are part of a bigger system. This is one of the most important things. There are many many organizations that are working together, especially for what you call “extreme events”— with the firefighters, and the police, and Israeli Army, and the Homefront command, and the medical corps, and the hospitals and the local and regional councils -everybody is working together, doing a lot of training exercises together so that the common language during emergencies will really be a common language.

An example of the role of technology in helping MDA perform its duties:

We have one of the most advanced command and control systems in the EMS field in the world. And it’s being developed all the time. When the first responder volunteer is logged into the system he’s no longer private, let’s say. We know where he is, and he declares that he is ready to be sent out on a call in the community where he is using his private car or an MDA motor bike and so on now the system identifies the 8 closest first responders to the emergency call and sends an automatic notification to their cellular device without intervening of any dispatcher. So this arrival time in these communities can be as little as 2, 3 4 minutes. They can begin to supply lifesaving treatment before an ambulance is even able to arrive.

On attracting volunteers:

We are very fortunate: volunteers simply come to us. We have generations and generations of volunteers, and friends bring their friends and it’s really something that is simply fantastic. We receive volunteers from all over the country, from all different types of people. Non-Jewish people, people in Arab communities.

MDA’s role in bridging divisions within Israel society:

It Definitely does. I was in Haifa last week. I met a volunteer who was from a town outside of Haifa and he was an Israeli Muslim. His father was in MDA. He said that when he goes back home he is proud to wear his uniform, to have the MDA emblem. There’s a very clear knowledge that MDA is an absorbing organization. If you’re a good person, if you’re trained well, we will take you. It doesn’t matter where you come from. MDA’s mission is to save lives and if you’re interested in saving lives MDA doesn’t care where you come from.

Does being from Israel ever create problems while operating abroad?

No. We have good working relationships. Take for example Indonesia, which is the biggest Muslim country in the world. We have a good working relationship with them. We learn from them. We’ve assisted them and they helped us build our earthquake alert system, because it’s a country that suffers so much from earthquakes and their knowledge and experience is amazing. I don’t remember any problems, whether with the former Soviet Union or in Africa or in Haiti, where we are still helping them to recover from their devastating earthquake. We like to help people and if in the process it is positive diplomatically then that’s good too.

This interview was edited for length.

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