Volunteers to Help Notify Families of Traffic Deaths

Last Friday, the Israel Police marked a small but emotional milestone as the first ten volunteers in the Traffic Division Casualty Unit completed their final briefing before beginning what many view as the hardest of volunteer service.

The new recruits will compose a corps charged with helping the "Job Patrol" (after the biblical figure), which locates and informs relatives of traffic fatalities.

The casualty unit was founded in 2002 following a Knesset decision to put the police in charge of notifying families of traffic fatalities. The country has only six casualty officers responsible for notifying families.

"The manner in which the message is delivered is one of the most significant and influential factors on a family's response to the terrible news," said police Commander Meir Or, head of the National Traffic Division."There is a saying about the Holocaust, and even though traffic accidents are a different story, still - anyone who wasn't there, cannot understand. When you arrive at someone's house and are about to knock on the door, and you don't know who will answer it, that's the worst feeling."

As the casualty officer for the north, Superintendent Gidi Argman is familiar with people's reactions.

"Not a single Shabbat passes without traffic fatalities," he said. "The message itself, with all its harshness, is only a small part of the story. It is very traumatic for a family and affects the rest of their lives. Every ethnic group responds differently - the Ethiopians grasp their stomachs and absorb the anger, among the Arabs you cannot talk with women; you have to be ready for anything. You can't just come and say, 'Your son was killed,' and then go home."

The volunteer unit was created after the traffic department realized a need to have community members present with the officer.

"It was like recruiting people for an elite combat unit, 'a friend brings a friend,'" recalled Chief Superintendent Eran Feinmesser, a psychologist by training, who interviewed about 70 candidates. "For months we looked for people from various ethnic groups who would be willing to bear this heavy burden, and mainly people who were capable of this. The emphasis in founding this type of volunteer unit, beyond helping the families, is being there for the casualty officers who go home and cannot or do not want to share their feelings with their wife or partner at home."

Bentzion Irving, a Jerusalem ZAKA commander, heard about the formation of the unit and immediately signed up.

"Unfortunately, I know the world of death and bereavement all too well, and more than once had to inform a family of the loss of a loved one," he said. "Before I go into someone's house, I go to the neighbors to try to get a sense of who I will be notifying. It is traumatic every single time, but when children are involved, or when you arrive at a house and only the children are home, the meeting with them leaves you feeling traumatized for weeks afterward."

Yisrael Wertheimer, 38, of Beitar Ilit, serves as a personal assistant to MK Meir Porush. He views volunteering for the unit as "holy work." Other members of the unit are Shiekh Abdel Hamid, a familiar Arab figure in the north, and his son, a Hebrew University lecturer.

The Traffic Division hopes the volunteers, who will average 500 cases per year, will lighten the officers' burden.

"It is enough that the volunteer is there, at the scene or at the family's house," said Feinmesser. "Just having another person there will already make a difference."