Hands-on training from the ground up: US first-responders study methodology in Israel

Several times a year, groups of Americans from various emergency agencies arrive to spend a week in classroom training and fieldwork alongside their Israeli counterparts. Then they take their new skills back home.

U.S. and Israeli first responders gather around U.S. Ambassador David Friedman at an ASTI dinner and awards ceremony held in their honor. Credit: Binyamin Ben Kahlon
U.S. and Israeli first responders gather around U.S. Ambassador David Friedman at an ASTI dinner and awards ceremony held in their honor. Credit: Binyamin Ben Kahlon

Among the inspiring words delivered by Knesset member Michael Oren to a group of 30 emergency responders from the United States was a shared belief that the two nations are in the battle against terrorism together. “We are fighting for the same cause, defending the same civilizations, with the same values and same beliefs. We are you, you are us,” said Oren, who currently serves as Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s.

Along with their Israeli counterparts in Israel, the American first-responders were recognized for their bravery and dedication at a festive awards dinner in Jerusalem on Wednesday night.

The June 27 event, attended by Israeli government ministers and Knesset members, also featured guest speaker U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, along with other dignitaries. It was hosted by the Advanced Security Training Institute, or ASTI.

A nonprofit established in 2003, it works to ensure the safety and security of citizens in the United States by instructing professionals on the most current methods to do so. In the past 16 years, the group has provided more than 300 U.S. emergency responders, military veterans, government decision-makers and others with advanced security and medical training in Israel, based on battle-tested methods that have been honed by decades of conflict.

Following a week of training in Israel, the U.S. delegates go back home and share their newly learned skill sets with the first-responders in their counties and states. To date, more than 7,000 American emergency personnel throughout the country have received training sessions based on the Israeli methodologies.

ASTI founder and president Yisroel Stefansky said that when the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on America were launched, he was serving as a member of the ZAKA first-aid and rescue organization. Tasks included gathering body parts of the victims of terror attacks and traffic accidents for proper Jewish burial.

After 9/11, Stefansky, an Israeli who holds U.S. citizenship, received a call from the Israeli police to spend time with a delegation of American police officers arriving in Israel to learn how to combat terror. It was then that he realized the need for a broader program and curriculum to help U.S.-based emergency agencies with what Israel unfortunately knows about all too well.

Stefansky told JNS that “in Israel, a lot of blood has been spilled. We have figured out how to fight terror, so we want to teach them how to prevent the loss of life.”

So several times a year, groups of U.S. first-responders from various emergency agencies arrive in Israel for a week-long program of ASTI classroom training and fieldwork alongside their Israeli counterparts.

‘How to work together as a cohesive team’

Michael Guditus from the Emergency Management Department in Fairfax County, Va., told JNS that this was his third time in Israel as part of the program.

He noted that “what you see in Israel first, you then start seeing in America.” Guditus said what he has learned is “how to identify radicalized individuals, as well as lone wolf [terrorists].”

On his last trip, the group was given a special training session near Beersheva on how to detect and combat the phenomenon of terror tunnels, he said.

According to the emergency manager Guditus, people don’t realize that—similar to Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip—tunnels have been dug under the Mexico/U.S. border that are used to smuggle drugs and for infiltration into the United States. While these tunnels have not been associated with terrorism, that fact cannot be ruled out in the future.

Guditus cites a specific example of how operational techniques garnered by former ASTI participants have already paid dividends in saving American lives.

In 2010, a deranged 43-year-old man armed with guns and wearing an explosive device entered the headquarters of the Discovery Channel in Montgomery County, Md., taking three hostages. It is believed that the gunman stormed the building upset over what he called the channel’s anti-environmental message.

After a four-hour standoff, the gunman was killed by a SWAT-team sniper; none of the hostages were harmed. Guditus reported that some of the team members assembled that day to handle the crisis had returned from an ASTI training experience in Israel a year earlier.

“Before that, we didn’t understand how to respond together. You had the fire department with their bomb-sniffing dogs, and the bomb-disposal robot, and then you had the SWAT team and other tactical teams, who were separate branches on their own,” he said.

“What we learned in Israel is how to work together as a cohesive team,” continued Guditus “and those techniques were used to render that situation safe. The fact is, what we learned from Israelis saved lives there.”

‘The oxygen of terror is the media’

Another important part of the curriculum is how to combat “terror media,” a term used by Israeli Maj. Gil Kleiman (ret.), one of the key instructors of the program. Kleiman has served as a bomb technician and investigator, but is probably best known for his role as the chief foreign-press spokesman for the Israeli police throughout the suicide-bombing epidemic during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s.

“If a suicide-bomber blows up and nobody hears him, it doesn’t exist,” Kleiman told JNS, explaining that “the oxygen of terror is the media.”

He said that he was present at each and every terror attack during the years from September 2000 through 2004 to represent Israel in the foreign press because it turned out to be a “battleground of hearts and minds.”

Kleiman explained that “the terrorists try to vie for control of public opinion in the U.S. and other places. But as a spokesman in a terror war, the goal is to counter the terror agenda and motives. This battleground can’t be avoided. It isn’t public relations; these are actual operational capabilities to fight terror.”

One of the teaching tools Kleiman uses is a book he co-authored following his experiences, called Terrorist Suicide Bombings: Attack Interdiction, Mitigation, and Response. In it is a section dedicated to explaining how as spokesperson, his role was to diffuse the bombers’ attempts at self-promotion.

Cmdr. Guillermo Rivera, representing the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department’s Special Operations Division and a first-time participant on the ASTI program, echoed some of Guditus’s comments, telling JNS that his biggest take-away from his week in Israel was “seeing the trends here and the potential of what could happen” in the United States.

He specifically noted that “whether it’s the kite bombs or drones used in attacks, seeing it here lets us know one day it could come to us. The networking here—and the Israeli people sharing their experiences—is of utmost importance.”

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