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Israel repurposes public phones into lifesaving defibrillator stations

Similar arrangements exist around the world, but this is the first time defibrillator conversions were implemented at a national level.

The Magen David Adom Defibrillator in Israel. Photo via NoCamels. The Magen David Adom Defibrillator in Israel. Photo via NoCamels.

Israel’s public phone booths are being converted into lifesaving public access defibrillator stations, as part of a new national collaboration between the country’s main phone company and its ambulance service.

This is the first time such an endeavor of converting redundant public phone booths into lifesaving devices has been done on a national level, according to Magen David Adom emergency services.

“The concept of repurposing phone booths exists elsewhere in the world. There are also a few cities that have changed public phone booths into homes for public access defibrillators as we’re doing. But no one has done so on a national level. We’ve taken the idea up a level and thanks to Israel’s compact size and leading technology capabilities, this lifesaving project will stretch across the country, from Dan to Eilat, and be connected to the national emergency services, Magen David Adom (MDA),” said the MDA project leader of the MDA-Bezeq Israel Telecom collaboration, who requested anonymity due to his military ties, tells NoCamels.

Research shows that people are more likely to survive a cardiac arrest if a bystander uses a defibrillator, a device that sends an electric shock to the heart to potentially restore a normal heartbeat, while waiting for emergency medical services to arrive.

In the US, medical experts estimate that some 18,000 Americans have a shockable cardiac arrest in public with witnesses.

“The earlier an electric shock is given to someone in cardiac arrest, the better chances of survival. Bystanders have the potential to save a life. The first few minutes are critical. Any passerby can call emergency services and then use the defibrillator, even without any medical knowledge, until emergency services arrive,” said the MDA project coordinator.

For Bezeq, repurposing its rarely used public phone booths was a no-brainer. The phone company donated the rarely used pay phone booths to the project.

“Public telephones have been a part of us, but naturally with the advancement of technology they have become redundant, and we are happy they will be renewed” for this lifesaving initiative, Bezeq said in a press statement.

In the pilot program, Bezeq and MDA tested new technologies to ensure the street corner defibrillators worked. Now, the two collaborators have announced a widescale plan to convert thousands of unused phone booths into mini-medical outlets for storing the defibrillator in a well-recognized bright yellow box with red writing, in an easy-to-access and weather-protected site.

“The instructions on the recognizable yellow box are easy to understand with visual explanations. We know that people will be stressed or anxious and want to keep the process simple,” says the MDA project leader, adding that there are text instructions in Hebrew, English, Arabic, Amharic, and Russian.

This is not Israel’s first public defibrillator project.

In June of last year, MDA, together with the Ministry of Health, the Municipality of Ramat Gan, and JCDecaux, a street furniture company, inaugurated a defibrillator stand in the middle of a city square. JCDecaux had collaborated on similar initiatives for outdoor defibrillators abroad, including in France, Austria, and the United Kingdom.

Another less than successful attempt at external defibrillator stations took place in August 2017, when Ganei Yehoshua Park authority installed six stations throughout Tel Aviv’s biggest city park, which draws some 16 million visits annually. Within weeks of installation, the special park cabinets for the community defibrillators were stolen and never replaced. They still stand empty.

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The MDA project leader says that malfunction was taken into consideration when launching this new initiative. He says the yellow medical device container is “vandalism-proof” and sturdier than previous cabinets. The MDA defibrillator device was also built to be “smart” and technologically advanced. For example, a SIM card enables the device to check itself for malfunctions and if it finds one, an alert is sent to MDA control to send a technician.

The yellow box is also kitted out with temperature-controlling sensors to keep the medical device from overheating in Israeli summers.

To use the MDA phone booth defibrillator, a bystander must first call 101, the emergency services number, to be directed to the nearest defibrillator phone booth. While an ambulance is dispatched, the bystander will be given a code to open the locked yellow box to take the defibrillator out for use.

“So far, it has proven itself,” says the project leader about the pilot program that disbursed just under a dozen yellow-boxed public defibrillators around the country.

Financing for the new national project came from a number of MDA fundraising campaigns, including a NIS 1 million campaign launched in memory of cardiologist Dr. Oren Zusman, who died of cardiac arrest last year.

Zusman’s family and Israeli Friends of Magen David Adom set up their crowdfunding project to deploy defibrillators in public areas.

“Any citizen can easily operate the Magen David Adom Defibrillator without prior medical knowledge. The device provides an electric current as needed, dictates the rate of resuscitation, and provides clear voice and visual operating instructions, in Hebrew and in other languages. Additionally, the device connects to the MDA Emergency Dispatch Center, and the citizen receives additional instructions from medics and paramedics at 101 Dispatch Center. At the same time, MDA teams receive details of the patient, and are on their way to the scene of the incident,” MDA deputy director general, Dr. Rafael Strugo, said in a press statement at the launch of the Zusman family campaign in October 2019.

The new project also happened to launch in the week of MDA’s 90th anniversary of emergency services.

MDA says its emergency vehicles respond to more than 1.3 million calls annually. To date, some 30,000 employees and volunteers are active in the organization.

“Just as I say to my close friends and family on their birthdays, I wish for MDA that it will continue to advance, grow, change and improve and not stay in the same place. MDA today is super technological, it comprises the newest tech in the market, has numerous collaboration projects on the go, and is improving all the time. I’m proud to be part of this journey,” the MDA project leader tells NoCamels. “In the end, it’s the public who benefits.”

Asked how many of the thousands of unused phone booths will be repurposed for the public defibrillator project, the MDA project leader says: “The plan is to cover the whole country with easily accessible defibrillator booths. There’s no such thing as too many. These devices really can save lives.”

This article first appeared in NoCamels, which covers innovations from Israel for a global audience.