IDF hails new siren system as success after Gaza flareup, plans further upgrades

IDF Home Front Command says pinpoint alarms allowed half a million Israelis to go about their lives last month, instead of running to bomb shelters unnecessarily

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: Soldiers from the IDF Home Front Command work in a command center used to oversee the country's alert system in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: Soldiers from the IDF Home Front Command work in a command center used to oversee the country's alert system in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces hailed its new pinpoint siren system a success after its first major real-world test: the two-day battle with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad last month, in which hundreds of rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern and central Israel.

According to the military, the alarm system, which was put into service this summer, allowed approximately half a million Israelis to go about their daily lives during the flare-up, instead of unnecessarily running to bomb shelters because of sirens triggered by rockets that did not actually present a threat to them.

Under the previous alert system, the country was divided into approximately 250 regions, or polygons, as the IDF refers to them. This meant that a rocket heading toward one town would often trigger sirens in the community next door, despite that area not actually being under threat. These unnecessary dashes to the bomb shelter come with a price — people would stop working, some would fall and injure themselves while running, and there was the emotional toll caused by the siren-induced panic.

The military’s new so-called “selective” alarm model divides the country into some 1,700 polygons, effectively one for every town  — and more than one for larger cities (Ashdod, for instance, is four regions, and Rishon Lezion is two).

Though there have been rocket attacks on southern Israel since the new system was put into service in July, this month’s flareup represented the first significant test of the alarms — and its creators and operators deem it a success.

“We have tested it before, but of course what we had in the beginning of November was the first big operational test of the system,” Maj. Tohar Nitzan, the head of alarm operations for the IDF Home Front Command, told The Times of Israel last week.

Nitzan quickly rattled off the cities and towns that did not hear rocket sirens or heard far fewer during the two-day battle between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza than they would have under the old system: Ness Ziona, with its population of over 50,000 people, never heard a siren, where under the old system it would have had three; Or Haner, located northeast of the Gaza Strip, would have heard 19 alarms, but instead it heard just one; the communities of Shlomit, Naveh, Bnei Netzarim — all just outside Gaza — did not hear a single siren.

A woman hugs her dog moments after a rocket fired by Palestinians terrorists in the Gaza Strip hit a main highway between near Ashdod, Israel, November 12, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

In Ashdod, Israel’s sixth largest city, the new system was especially effective, Nitzan said.

With the old system, the entire population of nearly 250,000 people would have needed to enter bomb shelters 15 times during the two-day battle. Instead, each of the four regions of the city only heard a handful of sirens.

When the new alarm model was first introduced in July, the municipality was wary.

“People don’t like new things,” Nitzan said. “They didn’t like it at first, but after this bout, we heard very positive feedback.”

During the two days of fighting, 34 people were treated for injuries sustained while running to bomb shelters. Though she did not have an estimate for the number of people who would have been injured without the new siren system, Nitzan said she is sure that more people would have been hurt.

Illustrative. Soldiers from the IDF Home Front Command work in a command center used to oversee the country’s alert system in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF plans to make the system yet more accurate, directing alarms and warnings to people through all technology at the military’s disposal — not only sirens, but also through radio, smartphones, computers, and internet-enabled televisions.

Just before the fighting broke out, the military developed a way to put out alerts through the Telegram app based on where people lived, Lt. Col. Idan Ochman, who leads the teams developing these programs, told The Times of Israel.

The next tool through which the IDF hopes to send alerts of incoming rockets or other emergencies is the popular Chrome internet browser, said Ochman, who serves in the IDF’s Teleprocessing Directorate.

His team is also looking into sending warnings to the increasingly common smart televisions, though he said this will require agreements with the different manufacturers.

The goal is to reach people wherever they are. “If someone’s on the street, through a siren; if they’re hiking somewhere, through their phone; or if they’re sitting at home watching TV — on their TV,” Ochman said.

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