Cities and towns have long relied on volunteers with a medical background to stanch the bleeding or administer CPR until an ambulance arrives. In Jersey City, a nonprofit is investing nearly $2 million to train and equip volunteers to be dispatched to medical emergencies through a smartphone app.
“You don’t need an ambulance to save someone’s life,” said Mark Gerson, chairman of the Manhattan-based organization United Rescue. “You need a trained and equipped responder.”
United Rescue uses an app, built by the Israeli company NowForce, which syncs with Jersey City’s 911 center and uses GPS technology to pinpoint the locations of emergency medical responders. When a medical call comes in, the nearest volunteer is automatically dispatched to the scene.
Volunteer Mordechai Rubin has already responded to two calls in his own downtown office building since the app went live earlier this month, he said. In both cases he took the victims’ vital signs and medical histories while waiting for the paramedics and was back at work within 20 minutes, he said.
“Once they arrived I walked them to the ambulance and then I was free to go,” Mr. Rubin said.
United Rescue is the American version of United Hatzalah of Israel, which has 3,000 volunteers and responds to about 700 emergencies a day, said Mr. Gerson, the chairman of both nonprofits.
“That was one big question that people would ask when we started: ‘We know Israel has a volunteer culture. Will it also work in the U. S.?’” said Mr. Gerson. “The answer is, overwhelmingly, yes.”
More than 1,000 people have applied to volunteer with United Rescue in Jersey City, which has trained 50 volunteers through Jersey City Medical Center and hope to certify another 250 within a year, Mr. Gerson said. Responders are equipped with orange vests and medical bags, which cost more than $4,500 each and include defibrillators.
The goal is to get medical assistance to victims as quickly as possible through volunteers in every geographic and socioeconomic sector of the city, Mr. Gerson said.
Jersey City ambulances have an average response time of 5 minutes and 40 seconds, according to the United Rescue Coordinator Paul Sosman. Volunteers dispatched through the NowForce app have been arriving on scene within three minutes, he said.
“It’s really a matter of life and death,” Mr. Sosman said. “If you can reduce the response time by 50%, statistically you’ll have a much better chance of having a positive outcome.”
United Rescue is budgeted to cost $1.8 million in startup and operating expenses in its first year and about $750,000 annually, Mr. Sosman said. The plan is to eventually train and equip some volunteers with motorcycles, a model that has proved successful in Israel, he said.
United Rescue’s Jersey City operations are philanthropically funded, largely by Mr. Gerson and a couple other major donors. Mr. Gerson is the co-founder of the research firm Gerson Lehrman Group and a longtime donor to United Hatzalah.
He said he believes United Rescue in Jersey City is the first service in the country to use smartphones to deploy trained volunteer emergency medical responders, and he’d like to expand the service to other American cities.
The five-year-old nonprofit PulsePoint uses similar technology to solicit aid for people in cardiac arrest. PulsePoint has signed up more than 500,000 volunteers nationwide, including 1,000 people in Jersey City, who are willing to administer CPR or a defibrillator, according to the nonprofit’s founder and president, Richard Price.
The program, which doesn’t train, vet or certify its responders, charges 911 dispatch centers a $10,000 startup fee and costs between $8,000 to $28,000 to operate annually depending on the town or city’s population, Mr. Price said.
“I like the idea of trying something new and being innovative,” Mr. Price said of United Rescue’s model. “It’s a very expensive approach. But if they’re making a big difference, if they’re augmenting systems and somehow mitigating health care costs, maybe that would not be an obstacle.”
Mr. Gerson said the United Rescue model has proved financially sustainable in Israel, where it responds to an estimated 255,000 calls a year on a budget of just more than $7 million.