Where There’s Smoke

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I smell smoke.

I’m on the corner of a busy intersection next to an outdoor mall, and I definitely smell smoke. Most people would continue about their day. Not so a member of the emergency services. We always need to know who, what, where, when, why and how.

Not so much in order to save the day. We just need to know.

For those of us addicted to social media, it’s to be the first to update / share / post. These dudes walk the very fine line between being informative and annoying. Mostly, they are annoying. To these types, I say, with absolute certainty:


Your 246 followers have no interest whatsoever in the asbestos fire on Main Street, nor in the old lady on Coumadin suffering a nosebleed, irrespective of the amount of congealed blood on the kitchen floor.

I, however, prefer to connect with my followers rather than drive them away; finding an optimal balance between sharing and listening.

In plain English, I don’t have a smartphone.

In fact, my phone weighs 30 ounces and is advertised as being useful both at home and in the car. It has a lighted keypad, fits into my shirt pocket and has an optional battery, for true portable use.

I couldn’t feel more blessed.

Yes, it’s an antique, but that also makes it quite valuable. Shall we start the bidding at 10,000?

Back to that smell.

Where there’s smoke – yep, you guessed it – there’s fire.

You guys seem to know this story. Have I told it to you before?!

Right on cue, a call for a fire comes through on the (wireless) beeper. The “inferno,” as the caller has described it, is in a residential building about 500 meters away. The traffic light I was waiting for turns green, as if it senses my urgency, and I am on location in a matter of seconds.

A quick look around confirms that I am the first to arrive, which would be great if I were a fireman, but I’m not (yet).

I recall the story of a former EMT I knew, who ran into a burning building to extricate survivors.

He was a very brave lad but, unfortunately, there were no survivors.

And that, my dear friends, was because the building was unoccupied and had been so for several decades.

He was ultimately treated for smoke inhalation (and humiliation) and hospitalized for quite some time.

(He might have been hiding at home all the while – I can’t say for sure.)

Although it may seem heroic, we are simply not equipped, nor trained, to run into burning buildings. We are, however, prepared and qualified to treat casualties that come out of burning buildings.

But instead of just standing around looking cool, we try to assist the ‘war effort’ by questioning the occupants as to the exact location of the fire, and whether they believe there to be any trapped persons. We then relay this info to the arriving fire personnel, ensuring a faster response. Those with an overbearing presence and loud voice try their hand at crowd control, but I don’t quite fit that disposition.

So I speak to some residents, and then take out my vest and equipment and go into standby mode.

This is when we ‘stand by’ our bikes looking nonchalant. Some even light up and have a cigarette.

I Don’t.

Fire crews quickly descend en masse; I relay what I had gleaned, and they get to work. Some stay to ‘work the engines’ while others don self-contained breathing apparatuses and fireproof gear, and enter the building.

I hold my breath.

After about 45 seconds, I need to exhale.

Cliché fail.

I hold my breath again – hoping for a better outcome.

Another 45 seconds pass and the team exit, looking quite unperturbed. The Chief removes the mask covering his face and announces authoritatively, “Just a scare, folks. It’s only a small fire. No one is inside; the coast is clear.”

So, an awful lot of smoke and commotion, but luckily, no harm to human life; just minor property damage.

Thankfully, most of the fires I respond to end this way. People seem to have an innate ability to get out of harm’s way before it’s too late. I rarely see smoke inhalation, serious injury, or life threatening burns resulting from a structure fire.

But, of course, tragedies do sometimes occur, which is why our protocol dictates that EMS respond URGENT to each and every blaze regardless of the magnitude. Furthermore, it is vital, I repeat, vital, for us to win the race against the Reds. Decades of honorable custom is now our duty, my duty, to uphold.

The pressure is immense.

In conclusion:

Let’s hope that my track record stays as clean as it is, and everyone stays healthy, happy and smoke free.

Of course, there are those who suffer from smoke inhalation on a daily basis, to the tune of two packs of Marlboro Red’s.

But that’s another story.

La Bise Français

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The door of number 15 is slightly ajar, and as I approach I smell the aroma of freshly baked bread. Control often tells people to leave the door open, so that we have an easier time finding the right apartment. I knock, announce my arrival, wait a few seconds, and walk inside. The foyer is bright, airy and clean; the atmosphere is remarkably calm – quite contrary to the usual chaos of an emergency scene. A middle aged woman emerges from the back of the house, wearing an apron.

“Bonjour!” she says.

“Hey, how does she know I speak French?” I wonder.


Let’s not get carried away, Shmeel. French was compulsory in high school, and the truth of the matter, is that I failed miserably. I averaged 33% on my exam results throughout the year, and was disallowed from taking the finals. In the principal’s own words: “So that you don’t humiliate the school in the national results.”

No wonder I have such a healthy self-esteem.

My pillar of support during this difficult time was my Mother, who always insisted,”You speak French beautifully!” Thank you Mum.


Back to our story – conversation in Français:


LADY: Hello, how are you?

ME: My mother; she is cold.


LADY: I am sorry to hear that!

ME: (Gesturing towards the stairwell) There is a duck in my elevator!


LADY: You have a duck?

ME: Yes!


Why I said yes is a complete mystery, to this very day.


Introductions over, I follow her to the main bedroom.

The patient, an elderly lady in her nineties is on the floor, and is being supported by two middle aged women. I could have continued in French, but for some reason the apron lady switches over to Hebrew, and starts talking very slowly and deliberately. It was as if she thought I had a communication problem!?

Go figure.

“This is our mother,” she says in a loud and clear voice; staccato style to be more precise.

“She is healthy – we don’t need any medical assistance – just a man to lift her back onto the bed.”

“Ok, sure, no problem,” I reply. I can do that.

I start moving into a proper lifting position, and then reconsider. If three women had been unable to lift her, I certainly wasn’t going to try by myself; enough embarrassment for one day.

Plan B

“Control: Unit#18 requesting backup for ‘assistance in lifting’ please.”

It is not uncommon for elderly people to unexpectedly find themselves on the floor, and need help getting back on their feet, or their bed, in this instance. Our job is to assess the patient, understand the kinematics of the fall, and take their vitals. If everything is in order, we lift them up, and the person can indeed stay at home and continue their day.

I ask the standard questions and learn that she had slipped while getting out of bed, but had fallen to the ground in ‘slow motion’, because one of the daughters had caught her just in time. Vitals were normal and she didn’t have any specific pain.

Diagnosis: Pick her up, and let her go eat breakfast.

Problem: It would take at least another four minutes for my backup to arrive, and I was alone, in a room with 4 French speaking women.

Solution: No worries, I’ll pass the time with some small talk.


In hindsight: This was a colossal error.

In hindsight: My principal was right.

In hindsight: I should have said, “Je ne parle pas français,” and made myself a cup of tea.

In hindsight: Miraculously though, I still have a healthy self-esteem.


What then transpired would be remembered for posterity; by the patient, her children, me, and now, the world.

Do let me explain.

You see, there are words in the French language and indeed in every language that sound awfully similar, but have entirely different meanings.

I managed to utilize 4 such conundrums in the 4 minutes I was there alone.

Yes, I have a knack for languages. So what of it.


I turn to the elderly patient and say in the strongest terms;

What I meant to say        I definitely think you will be ok

What I actually said         I invalidate your health


The Patient gives me an awkward look and so I rephrase in case she hadn’t understood;

What I meant to say        There is someone on the way to help me lift you

What I actually said         There is a volcano about to erupt in the room


She starts laughing uncontrollably. I suspect she has dementia, so I turn to the middle sister and whisper;

What I meant to say        It seems her memory is full of gaps

What I actually said         It seems she drowned in this lagoon


The joviality proves contagious and everyone is giggling. I assume that it’s an involuntary reaction to a nervous situation and so I try to defuse the tension;

What I meant to say        Let us hope for a miracle

What I actually said         Let us hope she spends the money unwisely


Thankfully my backup arrives, cutting me short of what was to be the ‘grand finale’.

We each take hold of one side and “On my count: un, deux, trois” – we successfully lift her back onto her bed.

I am about to take my leave, when, ‘la petite vieille dame’, motions me to come closer.

She takes my arm in hers, kisses me on the back of my hand and says;

“Yoo Cpeek Frranche Beeyootifully!”

Thank you, Madam, I know I do – my Mother’s told me so all along.


Voilà c’est fini


Hard Knock Life

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I was at a fire the other day and the firefighters did a wonderful job; as they always do.

Fast, dedicated, professional, brave, strong, courageous, daring – and that was just the EMS response.

The Fire crews were even better.


Judging by their tanned faces, healthy demeanor, positive attitude and well-built physique, something tells me these guys are somewhat underworked.

To prove my thesis, I went on an undercover mission to Engine Company #26 to find out what goes on behind the scenes. The results were shocking.


A Day in the life of a Firefighter


0700      Alarm clock rings – With incredible alacrity – the Fire Chief presses the snooze button

0900      The crew is rudely awakened by a passing ambulance with sirens blazing. Chutzpah!

1100      Chief does a roll call and requests that, “He who finished the milk – go buy more”

1300      Chief does a roll call and asks whether the crew prefers falafel or shwarma for lunch

1500      The crew is hard at work – pumping iron in the backyard of the station

1700      The crew is hard at work – cleaning and polishing Ladder 26

1900      Some personnel stay to play Xbox while others attend a “Fireman appreciation ceremony”

2100      Actually it’s rather quiet at 9pm

2300      The dispatcher is overheard on the phone “Sir – We don’t remove cats from trees unless they have beens stuck for 48 hours”

0100      The dispatcher is overheard on the phone “Ma’am – Can’t you put it out by yourself, it’s just a fire in a bin for heavens sake!”

0300      The dispatcher is overheard on the phone “Why are you calling so late – it’s in middle of the night!”

0500      Phone rings five times and then:

“You have reached the voicemail of ‘Engine 26’ – if this is an emergency, call EMS. Those guys never sleep”



Dearest Firefighter,

We both know that at least half of the above is untrue. Please pardon my extensive use of poetic license, also known as artistic license. Please know that artistic license is a generally accepted practice, particularly when the result is widely acclaimed.

This blog is widely acclaimed – by my wife at least.

My brother is less keen.

Artistic license, also known as dramatic license, glamorizes real-world occupations for the sake of an exciting reader’s experience. For example, in the above schedule I omitted some of the more mundane aspects of the job such as paperwork, reports, and administrative duties, which in reality often constitute the majority of a fireman’s work. As was probably immediately obvious, even to the uninformed reader, there were many aspects of the day that I failed to mention. Items such as, who the milk culprit actually was, and whether the old lady did indeed manage to the put the fire out herself, were excluded for the sake of brevity.

On the other hand, I also presented other duties with much more action, suspense or drama than would be experienced in reality. On most days, (excluding public holidays), there is absolutely no free choice for lunch – the chief unabashedly plays dictator at the takeout place.


Absolutely all joking aside;

I have found the firefighters in Jerusalem to be a really amazing group of people. They might respond to fewer emergencies per hour than their EMS brothers, but when they do get off the couch, they are unbelievably talented and dedicated. Aside from the obvious job description of putting out fires, these guys are expected to have a myriad of other talents, and they perform, every time. Their street-smarts are truly a marvel to behold, and I have seen them work miracles tens of times – always with their trademark humility and caring.

When you really need help, in any sticky situation, call the Jerusalem Fire Department.

Between the hours of 9 to 5, that is.

At all other times, please call EMS – those guys never sleep.

Humble Gratitude

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“Who is it?”

The door opened slowly, deliberately, and in the doorway was a well-kept lady in her seventies.

“Who is it?” she asked again, this time with urgency.

And yet, with humility.

She was looking directly at me. I was wearing my neon orange vest, and in my hand, a bright red EMT bag.

“Uh, I’m with EMS,” I answered somewhat confused.

“Oh, thank you for coming so quickly; please do come inside.”

“Is there anyone else?” she asked, looking squarely at the ambulance driver standing behind me.


She was blind.


We entered, suddenly less important, less proud.

She beckoned me to the back of the house. “It’s my husband, David. His chest has been bothering him all day and I’m worried it’s his heart.”

David was sitting in an armchair, his hands clutching his chest. Hearing footsteps, he directed his face toward me and asked, “Who’s there?”


He was blind.


“I’m Shmeel and I am with the emergency services. What seems to be the problem, sir?”

“I’m having some chest pain but I’m sure it’s nothing. I told Michal not to call for an ambulance but she worries about me. I hate to bother you boys.”

Why is it that the people who actually need an ambulance tend to apologize for the inconvenience, whilst others with inconsequential ailments will yell at us for not moving quick enough?

Perhaps it’s because real illness makes us feel vulnerable and unpretentious.

Perhaps it’s because we suddenly realize, no matter how important and busy and significant we were a moment ago, suddenly, like a flash of lightning, we know the truth. The truth that we are but flesh and blood: mortal and limited. Millionaire chief executive and penniless homeless-man, suddenly understand that they were never actually in control, at all.

But David didn’t need the forewarning of illness. He was humble from birth.

“It’s no bother at all, Sir. We’re here to help. Why don’t you tell me exactly how you feel?”

He described his symptoms as his wife stood next to him, touching his shoulder reassuringly. She interjected every so often with facts he had forgotten. It was moving to see how completely devoted they were to each other.

I took his vitals and a complete medical history. He wasn’t pale, diaphoretic, dizzy, nauseous, nor having any trouble breathing. He did have a very distinct pain in his chest though, and I feared he might be having some form of asymptomatic myocardial infarction – in laymen’s terms, a heart attack without the usual signs or symptoms. We needed to get him to the hospital. Fast.

I shared my hunch with the ambulance driver, and he concurred.

He dialed Control, “G’day, this is Ambulance #80 requesting ALS backup for a possible MI.”

“Ambulance #80 be advised that the only Natan available is in a different city, 20 minute ETA, do you still want them?”

(It was a particularly busy time, and there were no local ALS units available.)

“Negative, I’ll transport myself.”

The reasoning was simple. The BLS ambulance, with Lights and Sirens, would almost certainly get to the hospital before the Natan had even entered the city. It was the right thing to do.

“Are there any family members we can notify so you won’t be alone in the hospital?” I asked Michal, as my colleagues eased David into the ambulance chair.

“No. It’s just me and David. We have each other, thank G-d. I don’t know what I would do if something were to happen to him.” She whispered.

I rarely get a lump in my throat.

We readied the patient for transport and wheeled him to the door amidst a constant stream of thanks and appreciation. The elevator was out of service and so we carried him down manually, for the lack of a better word. The men did the heavy lifting and the two female members of the team, assisted Michal down the stairs.

“Thank you so much – I’m so sorry – I hope it’s not too much of a bother,” said husband and wife, in a harmony of humble gratitude.

I got to the bottom of the stairs tired yet inspired, by these people who, challenged with obvious and difficult handicaps, had nonetheless made the utmost of their lives. They seemed genuinely happy with their lot and were leading a productive and fruitful existence despite the hurdles they faced. Or perhaps because of the hurdles they faced.

They managed to whisper one more ‘thank you’ as I closed the ambulance door.

“Thank YOU,” I wanted to say.

Thank you so very much.


Postscript: “The most special people I know are those who have encountered adversity, confronted hardship, endured pain, withstood misfortune, and have dug their way out of the mire. These individuals have an immense appreciation for life and living, and an abundance of simple faith and hope. Their suffering has not brought them down, but instead lifted them up to an existence of humility, gratitude and compassion. Virtue isn’t born of happenstance; it is acquired through sincere application.”