First-responders return from Israel mission
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First-responders return from Israel mission

A team of first-responders from Bergen County’s emergency police, fire, and medical units returned to New Jersey last week after observing their Israeli counterparts during a mission organized by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

The group of 11 spent Sept. 14 to 21 in UJA-NNJ’s Partnership 2000 sister city of Nahariya, visiting police and fire stations, as well as the city’s Western Galilee Hospital. The hospital drew attention during the rocket attacks of the Second Lebanon War because of its reinforced underground facilities for patients and doctors.

The hospital’s procedures for moving to the underground facility particularly impressed Jodi Kennedy, a line paramedic on Hackensack University Medical Center’s Mobile Intensive Care Unit.

“I would have liked to have spent more time at the hospital,” she said, “just bringing back [to HUMC] the way they were able to get everybody out [to the underground center]. I’m trying to get to the people at Hackensack to let them know we’re really not prepared for a large-scale incident.”

Partnership 2000 is a program of the Jewish Agency for Israel that pairs American Jewish communities with Israeli cities. UJA-NNJ’s partnership with Nahariya gained prominence during 2006’s Second Lebanon War, when the city was a frequent target of Hezbollah rockets.

The first-responders trip was a follow-up to a similar visit from Bergen County police in 2004. In 2005, five Israelis came to Bergen County to observe its emergency services. Capt. Steve Babiak of the Bergen County Police Department went on that first trip and approached UJA-NNJ last year about sending a second group.

“Everybody was ecstatic,” said Machla Shaffer, UJA-NNJ’s Partnership 2000 coordinator. “The basic idea was for the Americans to see how Israel deals with terrorism – with terrorism on the borders, with terrorism within the cities.”

Plans are moving forward for a contingent of Israeli first-responders to visit the area again sometime next year.

“The idea was to learn from each other,” Shaffer said. “Bergen County police were aware that Israel could help them in areas they never had to deal with before,” she added, noting America’s increased focus on terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001.

Sgt. Barry Leventhal was eager to learn how Israelis react to terror attacks.

“I was impressed with the level of preparedness from the citizen all the way to the Israel Defence Forces,” said Leventhal, Bergen’s deputy County Emergency Management coordinator. He noted “the resiliency of everybody in Israel … to be prepared, take care of each other. They’re way ahead of the curve in a lot of counter-terrorism measures.”

Leventhal said he was most impressed with how the Israelis respond to crowd-control, which they face on a regular basis.

Despite having what he called “the trip of a lifetime,” Lawrence Rauch, chief of the Bergen County Fire Department, said he didn’t have as much to bring back from the trip as the police because Israel’s fire department is a second priority behind the country’s police and army. But he saw that limitation as an opportunity, noting that he’s already e-mailed training and prevention information, including information on fire simulators that would save the Israelis time and money.

Michael Devine, officer-in-charge of the Bergen County Police Academy, tries out an Israeli machine gun.

“Their fire academy is very 1960s and the police is very 2020,” he said. “So I think we can help each other that way.”

A major difference between the fire departments stems from the architecture in the two countries, Rauch said. Here in the United States, many buildings are wood, which means fires pose more of a threat to the building structure. In Israel, most buildings are cement and concrete, which cuts the threat to structure so that firefighters worry mostly about damage to what’s inside. Israel, which is approximately the size of New Jersey, has 1,500 firefighters for the entire country. Bergen County alone has 2,000 firefighters.

“They don’t have enough,” Rauch said. “The buildings themselves won’t burn, but they’re so short-handed that when they go in a building they have to go in alone, which is very scary.”

When Israeli firefighters come here next year, Rauch would like to spend several days training them.

Bergen County Fire Chief Lawrence Rauch, retired Hackensack Fire Department Chief Joel Thornton, and Michael Devine of the Bergen County Police Academy, watch Israeli fireman Yigal Ben-Abu demonstrate Israeli fire procedures on Ben-Abu’s laptop.

“Emergency services is always a sharing issue,” Leventhal said. “I’m sure they’ll be able to glean some knowledge from us as we did from them.”

One policeman on the trip told Schaffer that he was amazed to see security guards stationed at stores and restaurants checking visitors’ every bag. While that could be considered an invasion of privacy in America, Shaffer said, it is routine in Israel.

“This is a way of connecting with the wider community,” Shaffer said. “We know the Israeli police and army have something to teach because of their experience and we’re the go-between to show American police what they can learn from Israelis.”

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