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Citizen-Responders Supplement Jersey City’s Ambulance Corps

Unique in America, this life-saving program is based on successful Israeli model

JCMC community responders
United Rescue Volunteers Jeremy and Sheena Goodin participate in a demonstration at City Hall in Jersey City.

If you have a heart attack or suffer another life-threatening event in Jersey City, there’s a chance the first person by your side to keep you alive could be your neighbor. That’s because a team of volunteers have been trained to provide life-saving care while waiting for professional first responders. The program is based on an Israeli model and is the first of its kind in the United States.

Trained by emergency response staff at Jersey City Medical Center, these “community-responders” are equipped with defibrillators, oxygen, glucose, naloxone, bandages, and other standard gear and dispatched directly to the site of an emergency. They work to stabilize a patient until the ambulance crew arrives, or assist professionals if they get there first.

JCMC launched the program in 2015 and has trained 150 people since then, more than half of whom remain active today. These responders have been sent on thousands of calls, officials said, and made a positive impact for many of the patients they’ve attended.

“We’ve had a couple of times when community responders have made a real difference,” said Robert Luckritz, executive director of Emergency Medical Services at JCMC, which is part of the massive RWJ/Barnabas healthcare network. “They’ve had a real impact on patient outcomes.”

“(Your ambulance corps) can have the best response times in the nation, but the reality is sometimes you get there and it’s just not quick enough,” Luckritz added. If community members can be trained to pitch in, he said, “Why not do it?”

Pushing for faster response times

The community-responder program grew out of a larger effort to improve response times for JCMC, which provides emergency services for Jersey City and the rest of Hudson County. Luckritz said focusing on ambulance run data helped the EMS team trim more than one-third off the time it took for them to get to a patient — doubling the survival rate for cardiac arrest patients. But it also prompted them to wonder what else they could do to improve.

Conversations with staff in Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop’s office led Luckritz and his team to United Hatzalah of Israel, a nonprofit organization that has trained some 3,000 volunteers as emergency responders in that country. These individuals have answered more than 200,000 calls a year, traveling to emergencies on specially equipped motorcycles or four-wheeled vehicles 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On average, they arrive in two to four minutes and stabilize the patient before the ambulance crew shows up.

Michael Littenberg-Brown, the New York City-based vice president of Friends of United Hatzalah, said the organization is working to bring the program to other U.S. cities, but so far the Jersey City program is the only one operating. (United Hatzalah is not affiliated with local Hatzalah organizations, an informal network of responders that serve some Jewish communities in the U.S. as an alternative to traditional EMS; the word Hatzalah means “rescue” or “relief” in Hebrew.)

Luckritz said his team has also done presentations about their program in several communities in other states and indicataed that the model definitely has potential in other urban or rural areas, where there’s an opportunity to get help to patients faster. “I do think it’s scalable and I do think it can be done in any community,” he said.

50,000 ambulance runs annually

In Jersey City — which involves 50,000 ambulance runs a year — the key was targeting the program to where it is needed most, Luckritz explained. “We do have some gaps,” he said. “So we thought, ‘Let's do a gap analysis’.”

Through that process, the EMS staff discovered that certain neighborhoods — like Port Liberte, a gated community on the Hudson River, and Society Hill, a new development on the banks of the Hackensack River — presented greater challenges for ambulance crews due to limited access, cul-de-sacs, and dead-end streets. High-rise buildings, which dot the waterfront and can house thousands of people at a time, were another opportunity for improvement, he said.

“These were areas we could work on,” Luckritz noted. The neighborhoods identified in the gap analysis became the first areas where they sought to recruit volunteers.

Since the program involves 60 hours training and a serious commitment, Luckritz said they didn’t expect an overwhelming response to their request for volunteers, with maybe 100 residents signing up over the first year. Instead, 700 people soon applied and eventually they had responses from over 1,000.

Volunteer profile

While only 15 percent have completed the training so far, interest in the program remains strong, he said. The volunteers are a diverse mix of working and retired residents, including several who worked as police officers or other first responders in the past.

Integrating the program into the hospital’s EMS work has also been critical to its success, Luckritz said. Professional responders trained the volunteers, allowing the two teams to establish a connection that would help them work together in the field. In addition, the community responders carry radio units that connect with JCMC’s emergency-dispatch system, so that operators can coordinate the two groups. (The hospital also covers any liability insurance the volunteers need.)

“We really wanted to fold them into our system,” Luckritz said. “The ambulance may get there first, but it’s still another set of hands.”

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