Earlier this month, the Israeli Defense Ministry’s National Emergency Management Authority led an international exercise that could not be more relevant.
The three-day exercise, which began on March 12, simulated a major earthquake, and drilled some 120 participants from 17 countries on responses.
Teams from countries including Austria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, the European Union and the United Nations all took part, practicing emergency procedures, including requesting international assistance. The teams also practiced the integration of foreign rescue teams, distributing aid and rehearsed a range of extreme earthquake scenarios.
“The National Emergency Management Authority designated 2023 as the year to focus on improving national earthquake preparedness, with the devastating earthquake in Turkey further emphasizing the challenges that we face,” said NEMA director IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yoram Laredo.
Only a month beforehand, a delegation led by the IDF Home Front Command brought 230 Israeli personnel to Turkey to participate in rescue operations following the devastating earthquakes there.
However, the Israeli home front remains vulnerable to a similar disaster.
Any earthquake over 6.5 on the Richter scale is expected to cause significant harm to older buildings in Israel, including in the center of the country, but especially in the north and along the Jordan Valley.
The Home Front Command is the main state organization leading public earthquake preparation efforts, and working year-round to boost Israeli readiness wherever it can.
IDF Lt. Col. (res.) Yasmin Hen, the Command’s head of instruction on earthquakes, has also served as the military’s representative in the Israeli inter-ministerial committee for earthquake readiness, which meets periodically.
“The Home Front Command’s readiness for earthquakes began mainly after the big quake in Turkey in 1999,” she told JNS. “We were sent to assist—I was the noncommissioned officer for search and rescue. We remember that event very clearly,” she said. “That’s when the real readiness efforts began. We understood that this happened really close to us, and can hit our area at any time.”
Several state committees were formed to examine Israeli readiness, and governments began initiating assessments of the potential scale of casualties and damage that would be involved in a major quake.
The IDF Home Front Command is the national leader on disaster preparedness, said Hen.
“We also assist with disaster events all over the world and in Israel. We take many lessons from the outside world and apply them to our planning. We have an IDF plan that defines our own readiness, as well as a doctrine that outlines the principles we must follow in order to manage ourselves in earthquakes, with all relevant challenges. The IDF recognizes that it is a massive organization with numerous capabilities. During an earthquake, all of these capabilities are activated,” Hen added.
This means that all IDF divisions and brigades would be sent to earthquake-hit areas and placed “on loan” for search and rescue missions.
The Home Front Command has four conscripted search and rescue battalions and around 40 reserve battalions—and that’s still insufficient for a major earthquake event, Hen warned.
“Personnel [numbers] is one of the most difficult challenges here,” she said. “Despite the fact that we have many battalions, we want to train as many civilians and other units as possible for search and rescue. This is something we do with the first responder units we train. They are the ones who will arrive in their respective areas on their own. According to the news reports, the majority of rescuers in earthquakes are families, neighbors and bystanders. So in a real event in Israel, the Home Front Command will concentrate on the more difficult rescues.”
The Command’s information collection abilities include satellites, drones and light aircraft, as well as existing cameras.
The Command has also developed an advanced geography information system, dubbed “Shual,” or “Fox,” which generates a nationwide situation picture.
“Today, the Fox system has undergone a revolution,” she said. “It fuses data such as the cellular location of trapped people, and shows us layers of buildings in the whole of the country, including building plans, so that rescuers can understand where the trapped are, how many residents lived in an affected structure, and more. The future is here,” said Hen
Elements of this system were activated in Turkey, she added.
Israel is also making progress on early-warning systems. Working with the Geological Survey of Israel, the Command has deployed 120 sensors along the Syrian-African fault line, which runs along the Jordan Rift Valley, with the goal of giving nearby communities, particularly in northern Israel and the Jordan Valley, a valuable alert.
“What’s most important is to be alert to the possibility of an earthquake and not lose time in responding. I’m not sure whether if we felt the ground moving, we’d know instantly if it’s us or the earth. It can take time. We want to decrease the response time,” said Hen.
The faster people head outside—if they can do so in seconds—or for the rocket-proof room in an apartment (while leaving the window and door open), or for the stairwell—and from there outside (elevators are off limits), the better.
The Command will also issue alerts on its phone application, which must be downloaded.
“Some of the experts believe that building reinforced safe rooms strengthens structures and adds stability,” said Hen.
However, previous government plans to encourage building residents to fortify old buildings have not been met with major success, she acknowledged, adding that large-scale municipal renewal projects are complex affairs that go far beyond the Command’s jurisdiction.
On Feb. 12, the Cabinet approved Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to establish a ministerial committee on civilian emergency preparedness, including earthquakes. Netanyahu called for an updated national plan on home front preparedness to be presented at the committee’s first meeting.
“Regarding the issue of earthquakes, the committee will act to ensure that government ministries and local authorities are preparing for the scenario and are working to strengthen public and private buildings, alongside improving the response in times of emergency,” said the government.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant added, “Preparing the home front for emergency scenarios, chief among them earthquakes and war, is a central task that lies at the doorstep of the State of Israel. In accordance with the government’s decision, the Ministry of Defense will take the lead on this issue.”
Two days later, the Knesset’s Research and Information Center produced a troubling report according to which strong earthquakes strike Israel on average once every 80 years. Despite the fact that the last strong earthquake was in 1927, nearly a century ago, to date only 2,800 out of the 98,000 apartments located close to the fault line have been reinforced, the report said.
In 2005, the government approved National Outline Plan 38 for strengthening existing buildings, which established a fast track for strengthening buildings that do not meet the earthquake resistance standard, mandatory since 1980.
Knesset member Alon Schuster said last month that in the event of a major quake, the country would experience massive casualties, and incur expenses that would be comparable to the 100 billion shekels (more than $27 billion) spent during the coronavirus pandemic, if things did not change—particularly for communities near the rift.
There have also been long-standing disputes over which organization should coordinate earthquake responses. According to Israeli law, the Israel Police is in charge of civil emergencies unless the government appoints the Home Front Command to lead the efforts.
“We are dedicating this year as the year of readiness by emergency authorities,” said Hen. “We are updating our doctrines and plans. We have learned many lessons on what needs to be improved. The idea is to take lessons from others and apply them in our plans. I hope this significantly improves our readiness as an organization responsible for saving lives—and this is the most important thing.”