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'Only here in Israel could we close the circle'

After Surfside tragedy, US team visits Israel to develop joint rescue doctrine

American firefighters spend five days training and learning with IDF team they met amid the rubble in Florida

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

IDF Home Front Command soldiers train with US firefighters who worked at the Surfside condo collapse with them, Novemer 2021 (courtesy IDF)
IDF Home Front Command soldiers train with US firefighters who worked at the Surfside condo collapse with them, Novemer 2021 (courtesy IDF)

After working closely together in the rubble of the residential building that collapsed in Florida in June, a delegation of American firefighters recently joined IDF rescuers for five days of training and learning in Israel.

Though the fifteen US firefighters and five Home Front Command officers spent days together searching for survivors and bodies in Surfside, they were not able to fully connect amid the tragedy and difficult work conditions.

“During the work in Surfside, we worked with gas masks and goggles on, and we couldn’t see who we were working with on the other side,” reflected the IDF’s Lt. Yuval Klein. “Everyone was covered from head to toe. Only here in Israel did we finally have the opportunity to close the circle and get to know the heroic firefighters who worked shoulder to shoulder with us in Miami.”

This week the US team — from Florida, Ohio and Virginia — spent three days studying and conducting a rescue exercise with their IDF hosts, and two days of travel to understand Israel and its people. They flew back to the US on Thursday night.

The June 24 building collapse killed 98 people, among them many members of the Jewish community.

The idea to bring the American responders to Israel arose when the Israelis were in Surfside, explained Col. Golan Vach, commander of the IDF National Rescue Unit, when both sides understood that they had much to learn from their partners.

“We brought with us a methodology that contributed greatly to them,” Vach told The Times of Israel. “They were very interested in getting to know it. On the other hand, we have a lot to learn from them. They operate on a very high level technically — in my opinion, the best in the world.”

For the IDF team, the orderly fashion in which the Americans operate, their logistical capabilities and their comprehensive written doctrine were especially impressive. The Americans also have cutting-edge equipment that the Israelis could only dream of.

The US side, meanwhile, was particularly struck by the unique Israeli intelligence approach to rescue operations.

Brandon Webb, program manager for Florida Task Force One and battalion chief for Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue, said that the IDF’s capacity for human intelligence is unique.

“They can very rapidly and accurately gain information on where everyone is at in the building,” Webb explained, “and to pinpoint the searches not only for void spaces that we typically target for live victims, but as soon as that’s over, they do targeted searches of the rubble pile to quickly and accurately locate the deceased.”

“They use that time to not only locate the family members of folks that were listed as missing, but also they empower the family members to assist in compiling a record of each missing person. Where did they sleep? What does their furniture look like? What are their habits? What identifiable heirlooms would we find in their locale?”

Crews work in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South building, as removal and recovery work continues at the site of the partially collapsed condo building, on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Surfside, Florida. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

“You empower that person to become part of the rescue effort,” he said, adding that the approach “assists with their transition from grief to recovery.”

“It can dramatically shorten the time it takes to find trapped individuals,” Vach said of the Israeli methodology, noting that it is applicable for anything from building collapses to flood zones. “Once you employ this very simple concept, you can simply find the people very quickly. When we demonstrated that ability in Surfside during the rescue, the operation was shortened … by more than 50 percent.”

A new global doctrine

The visit is meant to be the beginning of a process whose ultimate goal is a revision of rescue doctrine around the world.

The US and IDF teams conducted a joint review of the Surfside rescue operation, participated in a joint exercise at a Home Front Command base in Zikim, toured the Gaza Border, visited an Iron Dome Battery and spoke to officials in the Gaza-border city Sderot.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett (R) hugs Golan Vach, Commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ National Rescue Unit (L) at a send-off for the Israeli Unit on July 10, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images via AFP)

The tour also helped the Americans understand the logic behind the Israeli doctrine. “Now they understand why we have to do everything very quickly,” explained Vach. “They were at the Gaza border. They saw how close the border is, and how quickly our forces have to react all across the country. If we don’t have a very advanced intelligence concept, we’ll be lost.”

The Home Front Command is sending an official request to US FEMA representatives, asking for further meetings in 2022 to continue developing the rescue doctrine.

“When I go back home,” pledged Webb, “I will engage my leadership in fostering a continuation and strengthening of the relationship to make sure it’s something that becomes long term.”

The connection to the living

During interviews with US television stations in June, Vach refused to speak about bodies, instead referring to individuals who were no longer living. “We give great value to people, even those who aren’t among the living,” he explained.

This ethic, especially as it relates to the coverage of the deceased, left an impression on the US team.

Vach said he told the US delegation the story of Lt. Yakir Naveh, the IAF pilot whose plane crashed into the Sea of Galilee in 1962. IDF divers finally found his remains 56 years later, diving in dangerous and difficult conditions to retrieve a fallen serviceman.

“I said, we value to this extent those who are not among the living, we fight for our POWs and missing, when we know with certainty that some are not still living.”

A delegation of US rescue workers visits Israel following joint work with IDF Home Front Command soldier on the Surfside condo collapse, November 2021 (Courtesy IDF)

“It’s something I appreciate now,” Webb reflected. “How Israel has come to become such a wonderful place to work and live [in], in the short time that the country has been established.”

“We always look at the families,” explained Vach. “And the families are still living… To treat someone who is not still living as a body is to not understand how that person is connected to the living.”

The visit to Israel, which is slated to be the first of many, further bonded the rescuers together after the difficult experiences together in Surfside.

“We worked with them in very austere, very emotional, very demanding conditions over there, and they met us with just open arms,” said Webb. “Great people, highly trained and dedicated to what they do. I haven’t met any of them that I wouldn’t consider a friend.”

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