Revolutionizing emergency response: Eli's Journey

Starting at the age of 6, Eli Beer has been on a life-long journey to unite the people of Israel and deliver lifesaving treatment.

Israel has been a constant conflict zone since independence in 1948. Terrorist attacks alone have been responsible for thousands of fatalities and injuries over the years, in addition to the emergency situations that routinely occur. Despite the obvious risks of living in an often chaotic and dangerous area, the state has no centralized emergency call system. Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross, is available in most urban areas to send ambulances to accident victims, but that leaves gaps in service in rural areas.

As a social entrepreneur, Eli Beer (Ashoka Fellow, elected in 2013) has created a strong network of volunteer emergency medical helpers to fill the gap between the first call to ambulance companies in life-threatening situations and the actual arrival time of medical professionals. Through his fleet of ambucycles, several thousand volunteers and training programs, Eli has accelerated response time to within minutes. In parallel of revolutionizing emergency response systems, his work brings Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities together to solve this common, yet crucial issue.

Eli's journey to unite people across Isreal began from a young age. As young children in Israel, Eli and his brother witnessed a bus bombing while walking home from school. They initially felt powerless to help during the wait for an ambulance. But, Eli’s feeling of trauma following the attack motivated him to learn how to help save lives in emergencies.

At 15, Eli volunteered as an emergency medical technician. He saw how Israel’s traffic congestion and winding alleyways slowed response times, costing lives. One day, Eli’s team responded to a call of a 7-year-old child choking on a hot dog.  Due to traffic and road congestion, the ambulance took over twenty minutes to get to the scene. When they finally got there, Eli and his team began CPR, but moments later a doctor who lived nearby arrived and declared the child dead. There needed to be a faster way to get help to patients in their time of need.

Eli realized that had the doctor, a neighbor, been alerted sooner the child might have survived.  His answer, then, to getting help to patients faster was activating a new group of first-responders right from the neighborhood.  Eli had heard of the Hatzalah model that started among Hasidic communities in Brooklyn in the 1960s in which local volunteer medics are equipped with communication gear and medical equipment would respond to calls from Jewish community members in their neighborhood.  

The model inspired Eli. At 17, Eli founded the organization United Hatzalah (Hebrew for “rescue”) to provide fast, free, crowdsourced emergency response. He built an inclusive team of volunteer emergency medical technicians (EMTs), paramedics, and doctors—men and women of all backgrounds—to respond to emergencies in their neighborhoods. Traditional ambulance dispatchers refused to help by sharing emergency calls with the Hatzalah network. So Eli bought a police scanner to start with, then developed his own software which uses GPS to track emergency calls and find and dispatch the nearest Hatzalah volunteers. (Ultimately Eli persuaded the Health Minister to connect the government’s systems to Hatzalah’s.)

Then Eli introduced “ambucycles” – motorcycles carrying EMT equipment that can weave between vehicles or through narrow roadways. Emergency response times fell below three minutes and went as low as 90 seconds in major metro areas, making Hatzalah the first on the scene, saving thousands of lives annually.

There are now over 800 ambucycles deployed in Israeli cities, along with traffic-busting electric bikes and segways. Hatzalah chapters abroad are also making use of helicopters and drones. “When I talk about the idea of the ambucycle, people respond and tell me: ‘Wow, what a genius idea.’ I tell them, ‘It’s not. This is how people deliver pizza quickly.’ It’s a simple idea to take something that works from a different area and apply it somewhere else to solve a problem like shortening ambulance response times. Our response is the fastest in the world. We call our approach a lifesaving flash mob."

In 2006, Eli established United Hatzalah of Israel, launching new volunteer rescue chapters throughout the country. His team began recruiting rescue networks already active within Israel under the United Hatzalah umbrella. Now officially recognized as a national emergency response organization, United Hatzalah coordinates the activities of more than 6,000 volunteer medics, paramedics, and doctors across the country responding to more than 1,800 calls a day.

A call comes in through the national emergency line or directed to United Hatzalah and using innovative GPS and phone app technology, United Hatzalah’s volunteer pre-ambulance medics arrive on the scene with an average response time of under three minutes. As of 2020, over 3 million people have been treated to date across all countries United Hatzalah is working in.

With a global footprint, to date, Hatzalah has lowered emergency response times in 20 countries. It also sent rescue missions to the Gorkha earthquake in Nepal and Hurricane Matthew in Haiti; and it has conducted trainings in handling mass casualty incidents in Mexico, Panama, and Australia.

"When someone sees a problem that they are facing in life, they have a few options,” Eli told The Jerusalem Post. “They can let the problem become a stumbling block toward achieving their goals, or they can find a way to solve the problem and achieve their goals. There is also a third option: The person facing the problem can find a solution to the problem that works and then build a framework that will enable everyone accesses to it. The people who pick the third path are the ones who go on to change the world.” 

Hatzalah chapters of volunteers trained to reach the scene of an emergency in three minutes or less are operating in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Panama, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, and the U.S. This year Hatzalah developed a smartphone app to track COVID-19 exposure. In addition to being first on the scene of COVID-related medical emergencies, they work with religious and community leaders to communicate the need for safety precautions and self-isolation, and to donate personal protective equipment to hospitals in need.

Eli’s key innovation from the Hatzalah model in the U.S. was not targeting the service to one particular group. As Eli emphasized at his 2013 TedMed talk, “United Hatzalah is not about saving [Jewish people], it’s not about saving Muslims, it’s not about saving Christians, it’s about saving people.”  Eli’s critical innovation to getting response times down was recognizing the need for every person to be involved regardless of their religion.  

Eli noted that this integration was very hard in the beginning. “There were big differences in culture, there was a trust problem. Now that we have volunteers from all kinds of backgrounds working together, people understand they have a lot more in common and respect each other.  Our volunteers fight together for life.”  Because of this, the United Hatzalah is also a model for peaceful collaboration in Israel's contentious political climate.

"When someone sees a problem that they are facing in life, they have a few options,” Eli told The Jerusalem Post. “They can let the problem become a stumbling block toward achieving their goals, or they can find a way to solve the problem and achieve their goals. There is also a third option: The person facing the problem can find a solution to the problem that works and then build a framework that will enable everyone accesses to it. The people who pick the third path are the ones who go on to change the world.”