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Howes: Detroit volunteer rescue service moving forward

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

An all-volunteer rescue service, powered by a proprietary software pioneered in Israel, this week is taking a few more steps toward reality in Detroit.

United Rescue is not intended to be some back-door effort to privatize the city’s EMT units and kill union jobs, or to neutralize the “medical first-responder” training underway inside the Detroit Fire Department. It’s a chance to tap the city’s deep veins of volunteer spirit and philanthropic largesse to help Detroiters learn how to help other Detroiters until medical professionals arrive.

It’s the right cause at the right time. A United Rescue organization could answer a public need in Detroit, could ease pressure on EMT units and could teach volunteers from the city’s neighborhoods marketable skills. It also would reflect the Duggan administration’s openness to entrepreneurial answers to municipal needs, particularly those funded by individual private donors, corporations and foundations.

More, a United Rescue effort would embrace a value sorely needed in this town. It would challenge the community to personally engage in helping Detroit take another step forward in its revival. It would offer Detroiters a chance to participate in that effort instead of expecting someone else — City Hall, corporate Detroit, foundations or other levels of government — to do things for them.

“We’re very much in the exploratory stage,” Aimee Cowher, director of lean process management for Mayor Mike Duggan’s office, said in an interview Wednesday. “This is to determine what model would work for Detroit. We have a lot of questions to answer, I’s to dot, T’s to cross.”

The non-profit volunteer organization would be “another layer of service provider,” she continued. “It just enhances our ability to provide faster care by people who are just eager to help. Do we have a pool” of volunteers “out there that is naturally ready to be the next level of volunteers?”

If the experience of Jersey City, New Jersey, is any indication, the answer probably is yes. Four months ago, Israel’s United Hatzalah (meaning “rescue” in Hebrew) launched the first U.S. adaptation of its program in Jersey City. Dubbed United Rescue, it sought 50 volunteers from across the city of 257,000. It received 700 applications.

A Detroit pilot program initially would enlist 50 volunteers, eventually growing to some 500 for a city of 139 square miles and nearly three times the population of Jersey City. The evaluation phase, backed by $50,000 in private-sector donations, is supported by a steering committee that includes representatives from the city, the state Department of Health and Human Services, the city’s two largest hospitals — Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Health Systems — as well as several CEOs who learned of United Hatzalah during the Michigan CEO Mission to Israel last November.

This isn’t a done deal. United Hatzalah’s co-founder, Dovie Maisel, is in Detroit this week to meet with community leaders, representatives of the mayor’s office and would-be funders to explain the program, answer questions and gauge the chances for funding a likely $1.5 million annual budget entirely from private donations. United Rescue’s proprietary software helps demystify the process.

The app, loaded on smartphones, in Detroit would be connected into the 911 system. With a single tap on the app’s icon, volunteers can tell the system whether they are available. When a call comes in, the system finds an available volunteer caregiver nearest to the incident, provides the address and nature of the call, and dispatches them even as it dispatches an EMT unit.

Volunteers are trained according to national standards. In Israel and Jersey City, the volunteers do not replace professional EMT units. They’re often able to answer calls more quickly because they are embedded in their communities and often have less distance to travel to help a choking child, bind a wound or use a defibrillator until the pros arrive and take over. Volunteers are not paid, and victims are not charged.

“It’s a paradigm shift about emergency response,” said Maisel, based in Jerusalem. “It looks very good, actually. It’s a volunteer-oriented city here in Detroit — which is very different from Jersey City, where it’s not. I love the challenge.”

They’ll have a few, starting with reassurances the program isn’t designed to take union jobs; determining whether and how state laws protect, or don’t, would-be volunteers from liability exposure; establishing protocols to better ensure the safety of volunteers responding to calls in neighborhoods.

Those concerns are not trivial, especially in a city where EMTs have been viciously attacked and are now being given defensive training. But the effort is worth exploring — and getting a green light from City Hall.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.