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The directors of Magen David Adom in the Lachish region held an unusual news conference this week - rather than trying to raise funds or persuade people to donate blood, they were announcing the development of a new telephone system designed to screen crank calls to the organization's Ashdod hotline.

According to the director of the Ashdod hotline, Yehuda Gabai, the new system, which has been under development for several months and will become operational within a few weeks, is needed to deal with the hundreds of crack calls the hotline receives every day.

Gabai says that most of the calls are placed by Palestinians from the northern Gaza Strip, who call the emergency 101 number, curse the operator and then hang up. More disturbingly, the crank callers will try to report a fictitious emergency, hoping that MDA will waste valuable time and resources until the truth comes to light.

The new system, however, will allow MDA to define a list of `problematic' telephone numbers - numbers from which crank calls have been placed - and automatically block the calls from reaching the call center.

Calls to the emergency number placed from anywhere in the Lachish region - which stretches from Kiryat Gat to Ashdod, and also includes northern Gaza - are relayed to the Ashdod call center, which then redirects them to the relevant town or city.

"In most cases, the operators can recognize a crank call," said one MDA executive, "but sometimes the hoaxers manage to fool us, and we'll send an ambulance out to an accident that doesn't exist."

According to figures released by MDA, there were 450 such calls in 2004. Many of the false reports were of terror attacks in the Ashdod region or multi-casualty road accidents. In one case, MDA declared a multi-casualty accident when an anonymous call was received - apparently from a Jewish caller - saying that toxic chemicals had been spilled at the Kanot junction. By the time the report was found to be false, 22 ambulances had been sent to the scene.

In another case, a report was received that a busload of children had overturned on the main Tel Aviv-Ashdod highway, automatically forcing MDA to declare a high alert.

"It's just not funny," Gabai said this week. "It's very disturbing, and one of these days it could cost us dearly. I don't even want to imagine a scenario whereby all of our ambulances are on the way to a non-event, only to find out that there's a real emergency elsewhere. The delay in treating the wounded could prove critical."

Operators at the Ashdod hotline say that they have one "serial hoaxer," apparently from the center of the country, who calls a different call center every few weeks.

"He can fool even the most experienced operator," one said. "He speaks fluent Hebrew and sounds very serious, very reliable. Unfortunately, we are at his mercy until he's arrested. We have contacted the police and asked them to arrest him, but we understand that they are very busy these days and cannot make this problem their top priority."