Preparing for the L’ag Ba’omer mass Pilgrimage to Meron: Solving an EMS nightmare

Each year over 300,000 people from across the country descend upon the small town of Meron for a yearly pilgrimage on the 33rd day of the Omer, known as the holiday of La’g Ba’omer. The sheer amount of visitors to the town’s holy site, the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai causes numerous difficulties in terms of providing first aid treatment to those who inevitably will be injured due to the cramped conditions and the earnest desire of all 300,000 participants to arrive at the grave side of the famed historical personage and Rabbi.

Part of the crowd at Meron 2015

Part of the crowd at Meron 2015

In preparation for the yearly pilgrimage which this year will occur on May 25th-26th, United Hatzalah is working hand in hand with other response organizations in order to properly prepare the location for the throngs of celebrants.

The organization, which is recognized as a national EMS provider  goes above and beyond the call of duty each year to ensure the quick professional treatment of injured persons at the mega event. Currently, United Hatzalah has already begun setting up two on site medical clinics, a mobile command center, two first aid positions inside the graveside itself and will have on site up to 14 teams of medics patrolling the event at any given time. All of the personnel on site during the two day festival will be EMTs, paramedics and doctors in order to provide adequate medical care on site and relieve some of the stress that the event causes on the hospitals in the area.

“We treat over 400 cases each year on Meron over the course of the holiday,” said United Hatzalah’s Director of Operations, David Krispel, “half are treated on site by our teams while the other half are taken off-site and either evacuated to hospital or treated in clinics a bit farther away from the main event,” Kirspel added.

United Hatzalah Clinic at Meron

United Hatzalah Clinic at Meron

The main challenge in providing first response care during the massive event each year in Meron is the sheer density of the celebrants as well as the inability to reach and or evacuate an injured person quickly. With 300,000 people cramming themselves into a small village and each and every one of them wanting to go to the graveside and pray at the site itself, the challenge can be overwhelming if not impossible. The EMS organization is therefore preparing early and establishing clinics and first-aid stations in the compound which houses the grave itself so as to provide a faster response for those in need. “We are responding to the incredible difficulties that this situation provides and we’ve come up with solutions to all of the problems that we have encountered from previous years,” said Krispel.

United Hatzalah will be putting up signposts around the compound dividing the area into 102 separate sections each with their own number. These numbers will be used by EMS response teams, the police as well as other rescue organization to identify which part of the village an emergency incident occurs in. The signs divide the compound into a manageable size and allow the roving medical teams to locate the vicinity of an injured person within a few meters. “The signs we are putting up divide the village into 102 separate segments and a map of these segments is being printed and provided to over 800 emergency response personnel including police, search and rescue teams, United Hatzalah volunteers, Magen David Adom ambulance services and the fire department. With them we can have our teams in the field locate an injured person quickly and help them navigate an evacuation route if need be.”

Hanging signs in Meron to allow the crowd to more easily identify there whereabouts to first responders

Hanging signs in Meron to allow the crowd to more easily identify there whereabouts to first responders

Another challenge that the EMS teams face is the segregation of the crowd. During the festivities the crowd is segregated by gender in two opposite sides of the graveside, with a physical barrier separating the sides,thus necessitating medical and EMS personnel a of both genders to be on hand and clinics to be set up on each side of the barrier.

United Hatzalah has already begun laying the groundwork and the communications network needed to provide the quick response and will continue to set up all of the necessary parts of their integrated response system until two days before the holiday when the majority of pilgrims begin to arrive.

“If someone were to call an emergency hotline and say “I need help and I an in Meron,” there would be little to no chance of finding the person in time to help. With the system of the demarcation signs and the volunteer patrols, we can now reach an injured person in a matter of minutes.” The demarcation signs are updated online via google maps and can be scene by the mobile command center. The command center will then locate the closest team, all of whom will be in possession of phones containing GPS trackers and send them to the injured person.

hanging signs 2

Another problem that is unique to the event according to Krispel, is that “people, even if they are injured, do not wish to leave the location of the graveside, or the town. They want to stay on site, as they know that if they are evacuated to a hospital, with the waiting time and the treatment and the discharge time, they won’t be coming back during the holiday. That is why we set up clinics on site so that we can treat people and they in turn will accept being treated there.”

A secondary project which the organization is involved with was set up by the traffic police division. The project involves establishing specialized parking and departure areas based upon the geographic location of the destination point. So celebrants attending from Jerusalem will have one specialized parking area and point of departure, while celebrants from Bnei Brak will have another. This will allow for an easier traffic flow of participants while they are leaving the area. Even though the traffic police are establishing and enforcing the parking plan United Hatzalah volunteers will be the ones handing out the over 50,000 maps of the parking and departure locations to attendees during the holiday.

United Hatzalah working together with police in preparation for Lag Ba'Omer event in Meron

United Hatzalah working together with police in preparation for Lag Ba’Omer event in Meron

 “We want the public to know that we are there for them to help them in any way that they need and to make sure that they have a safe holiday. Should the worst occur and someone needs help, we will be there and we will be fully set up to provide the quickest medical care possible. For us it is all about saving lives, and that is what we intend to do,” Krispel concluded.

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