A home in Israel that was hit by a rocket that traveled from Gaza, more than 75 miles away, on March 24, 2019. (IDF photo)

What Israel Taught D.C.-Area Emergency Managers About Preparedness

On a recent trip to Israel, emergency managers from the D.C. area saw an ingrained culture of preparedness in a country that is used to a constant barrage of terrorist attacks and counts on a whole-of-society approach to stop assailants and respond to crises.

“They teach you how to get to a shelter because they know any time in that region that it could be seconds from the time a rocket is shot to get to safety,” Alexandria, Va., Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security commander Deputy Fire Chief Corey Smedley said Tuesday during a panel discussion at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Complex Coordinated Attack Symposium.

Learning critical attack response skills early is the norm, he added, and “everything that they do is at a national level.”

“This is a state of mind, a culture where everyone is prepared… they know first aid, they know how to use weapons, they know how to fight,” Smedley said, and from police to medical response there are “no cold, warm, hot zones — inherently, they have to go in together on a regular basis.”

Prince George’s County, Md., Deputy Fire Chief Brian Frankel noted that they were not used to seeing techniques taught in Israeli schools about what to do in the event of an attack. “They actually teach children to move toward a threat with their backpacks — the idea is to eliminate the threat as soon as possible before they hurt others,” he said.

The delegation also saw an EMS mobile app that contains a patient’s health and contact information for easy access and sharing with relevant authorities in the event of an emergency — a more “open” movement of information for first responders than in the United States.

“Facilities are secured before the incident,” Frankel said, describing how they visited the largest trauma center in Jerusalem where Syrian refugees were being treated.

“They have one mission and they understand it, and on a regular basis they prepare for that,” Smedley said, adding that attacks are “happening more and more unfortunately in America; it’s happening every day there” and Israelis recognize “that any minute it could be a threat to them.”

When crises do occur, not only do impacted personnel receive alerts but businesses, “to make sure they get goods and services ready for that particular event they’re dealing with.”

Prince William County, Va., Emergency Management Coordinator Brian Misner said another culture of preparedness detail that stood out to him was the Israelis “calling terrorism ‘terrorism'” before they “quickly move through it and get back to normal… moving on to not let the psychological factors take hold.”

“A bombing happens, they look at it, they evaluate it, they clean it up, go right back to living,” he observed.

It’s also “always clear who’s in charge — the national police are the incident command for any incident.”

Misner noted that American first responders “simply cannot do some of the things” according to the Israeli method, which acts according to the mantra that “the only good terrorist is a dead terrorist.”

Jon Stewart, advisor to the director at the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (DC HSEMA), recalled being stopped when he reached into his bag at a flea market — not by security, but everyday bystanders who saw a potential threat.

“There are checkpoints everywhere — it’s just part of their culture, what they expect,” Stewart said, adding that he was stopped because “they’re trying to determine the behavior of the person … not necessarily a look.”

“There are cameras everywhere; our system looks incredibly small compared to theirs,” he continued, noting that Israelis embrace “a lot of the things that we as a country push back against … we as a culture aren’t quite used to still being inconvenienced to a degree for safety and security.”

Israel has a “culture of preparedness that we don’t quite have yet as a country.”

Citizens there are “just as engaged” when it comes to cybersecurity and online threat awareness, Misner said. Stewart agreed that the Israelis “really take cyberintelligence seriously.”

Businesses are allowed to anonymously report whether they’ve been compromised, then national cyber defense teams help them mitigate the problem before it spreads to other companies. “Businesses come forward more often without it being a public relations nightmare,” Stewart noted; Israelis see cyber “as one of the next threats… because we’re so entrenched in tech.”

On varied attack methods, Frankel said that as “fire as a weapon is starting to gain traction as part of our conversation, fire as a threat is happening is Israel every day.”

At an average cost of three bucks a pop, improvised incendiary devices composed of fuel-filled balloons carried by kites over the Gaza border have, as of last year, burned 17,000 acres of Israeli forests and farmland. “They do hundreds at a time,” Frankel said. “It’s very cheap technology, but it’s very devastating.”

Smedley added that Israel is clear on the fact that no matter what attack method is chosen “it always starts with the human factor.”

Stewart observed that the Israelis’ terrorism preparedness could come at the expense of natural disaster preparedness, as the fault-lined country is considered way overdue for a big earthquake.

“We focus on the terrorism but we also have tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards,” he said. “If a major earthquake happens there, they’re not prepared — a bit of a pro and a con for them with singular focus on the terrorist aspect.”

Stewart was struck by how Israelis “really do embrace the mentality of training and drilling” with “less of a focus on the development of plans.”

“They’ll get people together and go and drill and build that muscle memory,” he said. “We need more of that muscle memory.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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