Sunday, 23 December 2018

Hatzola in Intensive Care?

It would be disrespectful to the good work of the Stamford Hill Hatzola organisation to cover their latest troubles in a mere few tweets, plus since this is a work-free week time is more in abundance. A full bodied blog must therefore be the order of the day.

There is a dense fog surrounding Hatzola's latest saga with the main participants reluctant to 'get involved' (a favourite localism) whether out of a sense of loyalty, an unwillingness to further fan the flames or for fear of repercussions, which, given the allegations, may well be real. Our press is of course useless on anything that really matters and even then they'll spin the line they're told to or they know they are supposed to, so there's not much information to be gleaned from them either. However, this is not an excuse to desist from wading in and so if you're still here let's go.

Established in the late 1970s or early 1980s, Hatzola is a voluntary organisation of medical first responders serving the chareidi community in the Stamford Hill area. There are other UK Hatzolas with similar names and while they cooperate with each other they are not affiliated and are each run independently. I am referring here to the Stamford Hill Hatzola only.

Hatzola is a registered charity though confusingly there are two charities: Hatzola Trust and Hatzola Trust Ltd. There are 5 trustees and directors of the charity company and there are then the volunteers, numbered in the low 40s. It is these volunteers who are the embodiment and visible face of the organisation and who are ready 24/7 to go out on emergency calls. This is what wins them the most respect coupled of course with the often life-saving nature of their work.

The current problems reportedly stem from a large number of disaffected members who are unhappy with the way things are being run and are agitating for change. This includes representation of the volunteers on the board which those in control will not countenance.

They complain of bullying of volunteers by management. For example, a new radio system was recently installed which allows management to disable volunteers' radios remotely and which is allegedly being carried out with little or no prior notice to the affected volunteers. According to the complainants, this new level of control is used arbitrarily without giving reasons so that volunteers suddenly find themselves locked out with no explanation. They also claim that management can listen in to the radios which the volunteers are required to have on at all times. Assurances were sought over who has access to this and they claim the replies given were unsatisfactory. In addition, disciplinary procedures against 'troublesome' volunteers have been commenced and then withdrawn with little or no explanation either way.

More seriously, the rebels point to a 2017 report by the Quality Care Commission (CQC) which found some worrying failings at Hatzola including staff working above competency level and shortcomings in record keeping. For comparison, the latest NW Hatzola (which covers the Golders Green area) CQC report also has areas requiring improvement but the Stamford Hill Hatzola list is longer and appears to cover more serious issues. They complain that few of the recommendations have been implemented despite Hatzola being the best funded of the UK Hatzola organisations. Hatzola's income for the last reported year was over £1m while NW Hatzola is only about a third of that.

There are then complaints of non-medically trained volunteers who supposedly fulfil no clear role and with whom confidential data is shared. They are also said to be higher up in the pecking order than those on the front line who actually treat casualties in accidents and attend emergencies. There is then allegedly a high turnover of administrative staff with a figure put to me of 'a healthy 15 who have left with grumpy faces, including fundraisers, CQC advisors, trainers etc' all in the last year. Unfortunately, an opaqueness surrounds the group at corporate level and their website has no About section telling you who actually runs the organisation. The best I could find on the management team is this page which is out of date and to which there is no link on the website.

Things came to a head about a month ago when 31 members signed a letter of no confidence in the management. A meeting was called and management stipulated that it would meet only 4 representatives whom the rebels must appoint. 2 hours were allocated to the meeting and 4 of the trustees/managers were to attend for the board. Of them, one turned up 10 minutes late while another left after 50 minutes. The meeting ended with no outcome other than that shortly after, the very same 4 representatives had their radios disconnected and were ejected from Hatzola. This re-enforced the view amongst the rebels that they are taken for granted and that the management will act as ruthlessly as suits them in order to avoid relinquishing any control.

The allegations are multiplying. The rebels claim they helped raise about £83,500 towards a new ambulance after one of the ambulances was involved in an accident. Management then decided that the damaged ambulance can be repaired after all and they mixed the raised funds with the general budget without acknowledging the role played by the volunteers. They also claim there are bequests towards ambulances which management refuses to implement. I must admit that arguments on ambulances leave me cold. The kids and youngsters love them as boys’ toys but I somehow doubt Stamford Hill needs a permanent fleet of this size.

As an example of the flexing of raw power, they point to a recent email from one of the trustees to the volunteers "Please be aware that there are no rights for a volunteer as there are for an employee" as if the issue here is rights over unfair dismissal or an employee/employer relationship. They also claim that there are amongst their number 2 fully trained paramedics but management won’t recognise them since it would allow them to increase their profile and eclipse those higher up. In addition, they complain that the trustees have never been frontline volunteers and look down at them with disdain and do everything possible to deny them board representation. I cannot say to what extent any of this is warranted but there is not doubt that there are a significant number of disgruntled volunteers and their case deserves a respectful hearing.

Now there is talk of the rebels starting a splinter group in association with Ihud Hatzalah of Israel. This would be a huge mistake in my opinion and one the local powers that be will probably never allow. The Israelis may do wonderful things but they are best kept in Israel. Whatever the case, if it is true that up to three quarters of members are disaffected, the current managers will have to give way or they will be left with no organisation.

In the court of public opinion the rebels seem to be winning. They have WhatsApp at their disposal to present themselves as the lifesaving underdogs versus an aloof management that won't dirty its hands yet is determined to maintain an unworkable status quo that suits no one but themselves. It may be true that some of the rebels are young hotheads who want more control than can be responsibly entrusted to them and some of the frantic messages will certainly have done them no favours. (The term in one of the Yiddish messages 'Hatzola trucks' for ambulances suggests a hired US hand may have written some of them.) There are, however, also plenty of current and ex-volunteers who are successful in their day jobs but are not allowed to move up. All the trustees but one are no more qualified or educated than the volunteers, their trimmed beards notwithstanding, and some possibly less so. Three of the five have been there since 2013 and are preventing fresh blood from contributing or Heaven forfend taking over.

For a broader picture, this seems to be a fight over control and succession which bedevils almost every chareidi organisation the world over and which we are used to from scores of such battles. Letting go and moving on is not in the Ten Commandments and constitutions and good governance is for the goyim and non-frum world which, wink wink, is anyway honoured only in the breach. Our Beth Dins are hardly fit for purpose and governance doesn't occupy too many column inches in the holy books either. So when they look around at other communal organisations like UOHC, the Adath Burial Society, our communal schools and numerous other ‘communal’ charities’ all they see is people in control since time immemorial and so why should they be any different?

Unless people leave voluntarily which is a rarity round here or they are removed in a box, it's fisticuffs or near enough every few years wherever you turn. Indeed, Hatzola itself had similar turmoil over similar issues about 15 years ago and no doubt we will be here again in a decade or so. Despite there being nothing unique about Hatzola in this, given how close Hatzola is to people's hearts (excuse the pun) anything relating to it inflames passions like little else. Chinuch for all its problems is something occupying the minds of our elites whereas Hatzola is a grassroots organisation or at least this is how people feel it ought to be. Yet by the sound of it it seems to be run more of a version of the poem: It’s Yankl this an’ Yankl that an’ chuck him out the brute/It’s saviour of your zeide when his heart begins to shoot. Or the appeal is short of fruit.

So having set out the issues, Reb Tickle's solution is simple. Trustees should serve a maximum of 4 or 5 years and move on once they have passed their sell-by date. In addition, rank and file members must be represented at every level with a representative of the volunteers at board level and volunteers who have been in Hatzola for a year or longer should have a full vote in the running of the organisation like a shareholder in a company. It would also do no harm if potential users of the service have a representative there too. If Hatzola can have a rabbinical adviser surely it should be no different for a patient rep.

Furthermore, term limits should not be confined only to management and should also apply to volunteers. By all means sign up the volunteers when they're lithe and lean and raving to go. They love the air of authority it bestows upon them, the jargon they get to use, the power of revving an engine outside shul on a shabbos morning and the entirely justified pride and sense of achievement after never having sat a recognised exam in their life. But at the same time send packing those of them who when reaching their mid-30s turn into tubs of lard. Though, by that stage they will have accumulated years of front-line experience which makes them invaluable as trustees or in executive roles. They can put themselves forward for election and if they have what to give they will hopefully get to serve.

Transparency and accountability, both in the finances and administration, are an absolute necessity to maintain our trust in the organisation. In the days of WhatsApp, emotional blackmail doesn't wash any longer and the entire town knows in an instant what's going on despite the best efforts of those seeking to cover up. Lives saved, injured treated, sick assisted are all very nice for the pre-appeal publicity but we are entitled to be confident that there is nothing untoward lurking in the background. Those to whom we entrust our lives must earn their trust but having done so ought to be trusted to have a say in the running of their own affairs for the sake of all of us.