As beach season gets into full swing in Israel this summer, one thing is on the minds of United Hatzalah marine rescue workers and EMTs – safety on the Sea of the Galilee (known in Israel as Lake Kinneret). It was only one year ago when Staff Sergeant Tal Kedoshim fell into the water during a boating accident and drowned. It took authorities almost one month to find his body.
Approximately one week later, another young man, Hana Aqla, drowned when he was pulled away from the beach he was swimming at by an undertow. Aqla had been swimming at an unguarded beach at night. Unfortunately, these were not the only incidents of drowning that occurred in the Sea of the Galilee. In the past three weeks, there have been four incidents of deaths of swimmers who drowned in Israel, albeit not in the Kinneret. Rescue workers are working tirelessly to prevent drowning fatalities in the Kinneret this year.
United Hatzalah maintains the only EMS water rescue team at the popular tourist destination. United Hatzalah Tiberias chapter head and director of the unit’s water rescue team Yossi Vaknin said, “It is all too easy to get swept out into the center of the lake and suffer from exhaustion and drown, especially in the late afternoon hours when strong winds blow from the northwest and the sun can dehydrate swimmers and cause exhaustion.”
United Hatzalah works closely together with the police marine patrol and area lifeguards, to provide water rescue and emergency medical assistance for those in need. The EMS organization maintains a speedboat as well as five jet skis that patrol the water in shifts. According to Ovadia Aharon, spokesperson for the Tiberias chapter and Kinneret water rescue unit of United Hatzalah, the organization has a patrol on the water 24/7 during beach season, from the Jewish holiday of Passover (March-April) until the festival of Sukkot (October).
“The drownings are such a tragedy because they are almost always preventable,” said Vaknin. “We work hard on preventative measures, warning swimmers and beach goers not to stay in the water too long during the afternoon and evening hours when the strong winds blow, and not to use ill-equipped flotation devices such as dinghies, inflatable mattresses or paddle boards, as these get swept out into a part of the lake that is deeper than a person is comfortable swimming in.”
The United Hatzalah jet skis are equipped with the full complement of medical equipment that ambulances and the organization’s ambucycles carry on land. Thus, the EMTs riding them are fully capable of providing EMS services while still at sea, drastically cutting down medical response time. “The point of the boat and jet skis,” said Vaknin, “is to provide aid to swimmers who get dragged out into the center of the lake and get them the medical attention they need as soon as possible.”
United Hatzalah’s Tiberias and Kinneret chapter has a team of 47 volunteer EMTs, some of whom double as water rescue responders. The chapter has trained 8 of their EMTs to be a team of rescue divers who respond to underwater emergencies during the summer months.
“We are hoping to purchase a new boat that is better equipped for life-saving rescue missions and will almost double our presence on the lake,” said Vaknin. “However, we are still looking for a donor to help us expand our life-saving efforts, and we hope that we can find one this summer so that we can outfit the boat and have it ready for the next season.”
The chapter suffered a setback last year when the water rescue storage unit was broken into and all of the medical supplies were stolen. United Hatzalah quickly replenished the equipment so that the water rescue operations could continue at a normal pace.
The United Hatzalah of Tiberias and Kinneret chapter enjoys good relations and cooperation with the residents of Tiberias and the surrounding area, as well as with the police marine patrol, with whom they work closely.