One of the most difficult things to do as a first responder is to prepare yourself mentally for the situation that you are about to walk into. There are so many variables and so many unknowns that take place in a chaotic scene such as the fire last night in Jaffa that claimed the lives of four people.
“When responding to an emergency call like the fire last night, you want to mentally prepare yourself before you get to the scene in order to be in the proper state of mind and enable yourself to better help others,” said Dr. Batya Ludman, a Clinical Psychologist, who volunteers as a member of United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit. “When we were called to the scene we didn’t know whether it was a mass casualty incident from a physical or psychological injury perspective or both.”
Ludman lives and works in Ra’anana and responds to emergencies with her fellow responder Dorit Mayerfeld who also lives in Ra’anana and is a Clinical Social Worker. “I was in the middle of exercising at home when I got the call, and I had no idea what to expect,” she said. “My partner and I went through scenarios in our head while en route to the scene in order to prepare ourselves for what we might have to face, but in the end, it comes down to training and being there with the people who are going through the traumatic experience. One never really knows what to expect except chaos.”
The Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit is tasked with providing psychological and emotional stabilization to the people at the scene of traumatic events who need their help. The goal of the unit is to provide on-scene psychological first aid known as PFA to those suffering from psychological or emotional stress following a trauma. This could be people who were injured, their families, or even witnesses and bystanders. “When we go to a call people don’t necessarily know that they can use our help or need our help,” said Ludman. “Our first job is to locate those in need of our assistance and connect with them to let them know that we are there to help them and that they are not alone.”
During last night’s fire, this proved to be a difficult task for numerous cases as Ludman described. “Last night when I was at the call I met a woman who was sitting on the step of a storefront with another woman. While she seemed composed she certainly was suffering from the trauma of the explosion. I went up to her and made the connection. I let her know that we were there to help her and that her basic needs were being met.”
“The woman told me that her husband and children were in the building next door when they heard the explosion and their windows blew out. While she sounded fine from her physical mannerisms I could tell that something wasn’t right. She needed to be reassured that her needs would be met and it was my job to figure out what those needs were. Sometimes even when a person tells you they are okay, we need to make sure that they are functioning in the now,” Ludman added.
Ludman continued to recount her story. “Together with Dorit, I needed to calm the woman down a bit and reassure her that what she was experiencing was normal. That is when she told us that she was worried about things being stolen from her home since she no longer had any windows. She needed to be reassured that no one would steal anything so we took her to the police who gave her their assurance that their home would be protected. Once that happened she was able to relax and move on from the scene to go and help her family.”
Ludman and Mayerfeld were among a total of eight Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit responders who came from Ra’anana, Tel Aviv and even as far away as Jerusalem. “We stayed at the scene for about 2 hours before doing our final sweep to make sure that no one else needed us and headed home. As a PFA responder, one needs to work your way through the people who are there in a very chaotic scene and make sure that no one else needs help. It is often the people who are silent who need the most help. Many times we get to a scene and it is the first responders themselves need the help.”
Lior Eskenasy, a United Hatzalah volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT) and ambucycle driver was also one of the emergency responders at the scene in Jaffa yesterday. Eskenasy said how much the scene reminded him of another gas balloon explosion that took place a few years ago in Tel Aviv. “I don’t think I will ever look at a gas balloon in the same way ever again. It is shocking to me how much damage these things can do, and how many lives can be lost by one faulty balloon.”
Eskenasy related how the explosion took him back to another explosion he had dealt with a few years prior. “A few years ago, I responded to an explosion in another apartment in Tel Aviv. I was the first medical responder on the scene together with Danny Shmuel. Police officers evacuated a mother and her child, and we went in with masks on to evacuate the husband. When we reached him he had been scorched in the blast and was taking his last belabored breaths. These were the same types of injuries that we saw again last night in Jaffa. The only difference was that at the scene last night there were dozens of responders, EMS, Fire and Rescue, as well as Police. Last night’s explosion was incredibly powerful as it not only demolished the building but did severe damage to vehicles outside.”
After the flames were contained and emergency crews began to look through the wreckage. Some hours after the original explosion occurred, it was discovered that four people were killed in the blast. Many of the responders had already headed home before the bodies were discovered. As the accompanying trauma associated with the deaths can cause a new wave of emotional stress for the family members and friends of the deceased, as well as others who were at the scene, it too, was something that last night’s first responders had to deal with while responding to the scene of the explosion.