When Crisis Hits Israel, Baltimore Volunteers Ready To Deploy

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At their site up the hill from the civilians, firefighters use large machinery to free victims. (Photo by Erica Rimlinger)

Israeli military officers and first responders traveled to Maryland last weekend to train a civilian volunteer corps that will help Israeli agencies provide emergency relief during crises.

Around 50 community members — firefighters, paramedics, doctors, nurses and even civilians with no emergency or medical background — spent Sunday morning at the Carroll County Public Training Facility learning Israeli emergency protocols, work methods and search-and-rescue techniques. Volunteers then drove to Howard County’s Patapsco Natural Stone Quarry to apply their new skills and get their hands dirty in a rubble pile that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers created to simulate a building collapse.


Led by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership and Emergency Volunteers Project (EVP), the training will bolster the ranks of the newly formed Baltimore-Ashkelon Emergency Response Team, which, if deployed during an emergency, will travel to Israel to assist medical professionals from the Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon. The volunteers will help conduct search-and-rescue operations, dispense supplies, assist with evacuations and provide aid wherever they’re needed and able. The Response Team was formed thanks to a grant from the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership.

Pikesville and Chestnut Ridge Volunteer Fire companies sent equipment and personnel to assist in the drills and helped set up a second destruction site up the hill from the rubble pit where the medical and civilian volunteers worked.

“One site is for the professional firefighters and search-and-rescue teams, and one is for civilian and medical teams,” said Adi Zahavi, founder and CEO of EVP. For the civilian drills, Zahavi said: “If, say, a doctor near his home was responding to a missile hit or earthquake [where a] building collapsed, we want to make sure they literally know how to do search and rescue. We’ve got Israelis and Americans working together in different drills and scenarios — earthquakes, missile attacks — in order to literally save lives.”

Scott Goldstein, captain of the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company and EVP’s regional coordinator for Baltimore, helped Zahavi coordinate the training. “This is the first time this kind of simulation has been done outside Israel,” he said.

IDF officer Yuval Kadmon introduces the tools volunteers used for search and rescue. (Photo by Erica Rimlinger)

Yuval Kadmon, one of the two IDF officers working with civilians, said: “It’s nice to see Jewish people in America still feel the need to aid and help Israel in a state of emergency, even though they’re 12 hours away.”

Zahavi was also impressed by the dedication of the volunteers, saying: “They’re so professional, going that extra mile to [learn] how it’s being done in Israel. Protocols,” he noted, “are a little different here.”

Dixie Leikach, a pharmacist working in a group led by Kadmon, watched her husband, Neil, use a hoe, then a shovel, to free two boulder-flattened mannequins: an adult and a baby. Leikach said she was surprised to learn emergency response protocols were “completely opposite in Israel. Usually you think about taking the most severely injured first, [but] in these types of situations, you actually work with the least injured.”

“[The training] spoke to me on two levels, both as a volunteer and as a medical professional,” Leikach, a past chair of the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, said. “For [fellow pharmacist] Neil, it’s the same reason. He’s involved as co-chair of the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership.”

Leikach was fairly confident her group would ace their drill, saying: “I’m hoping the jacks we have here will be able to do the job. We have to support the rock first so it won’t actually make the situation worse.” It was difficult to imagine a worse scenario for the adult mannequin, partially flattened like Panini under an ottoman-sized boulder, as Neil and two other volunteers dug under the boulder to loosen it. “This is interesting,” Leikach observed. “I’ve actually never seen Neil dig anything before.”

IDF officer Eden Keren, who lives 20 minutes outside of Tel Aviv, advised her group as they uncovered a mannequin baby from a pile of rubble and dirt.

“Wait, guys!” she called. “Let’s just stop. We found a baby and … that doesn’t mean that’s the only person here. We double check, and we’ve got intelligence that there’s another person here. Have we stabilized the stone, before we start our next act?” The volunteers assented. “What’s next?” Keren asked.

“Check if he’s breathing, find a flat board and bring him to triage,” answered Hannah Birnbaum, a physician’s assistant from Pikesville. Birnbaum, who has a son in Jerusalem and family in Ashkelon, said she joined the training because “I felt it was something I could do to make a contribution. I’d be doing something that would make [my family’s] life a little better.”

Volunteer Neil Leikach digs under a boulder. (Photo by Erica Rimlinger)

In addition to recruiting search-and-rescue volunteers, Goldstein recruited actors — students from his CPR and EMT classes — to play victims in the final, live disaster scenario, which would unfold at the end of the day.

Lisa Warner, a student in Goldstein’s class, and some of her classmates volunteered to be victims. The students smeared their bodies and faces with dirt, and used a spray bottle filled with fake, theater blood to resemble injuries. Warner said she volunteered because the experience would “help us as part of our training.” Fellow student Will Bauer concurred: “You don’t get the opportunity to practice in these kind of — they almost seem like they’re fantastical — scenarios, until something like this actually happens.”

Susan Flax Posner, co-chair of the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, and Shelly Malis, co-chair of Israel and Overseas at The Associated, had been persuaded to join the victims’ team. Posner and Malis debated with Goldstein’s students the pros and cons of using the fake blood.

“Does it come out of your clothes?” Posner asked. The students hemmed and hawed: None would guarantee its launderability. “I’ll do dirt,” Posner concluded, and squinted her eyes shut while Goldstein’s class enthusiastically threw dirt on her and rubbed it into her coat.

Later, the victims, huddled for warmth over a fire they’d made by piling wood on a grill, readied themselves for their marching orders from Goldstein. Goldstein looked around to ensure the group was out of earshot of the search-and-rescue volunteers, then revealed the final emergency scenario would be a missile attack.

Goldstein pointed to Malis and said: “Tell [the volunteers] your husband is in the building and you can’t find him. They’re going to try and do other things. You don’t back off. I want you to physically grab them shake them, take then somewhere they don’t want to go. I want you to really be a problem for them. Make them deal with you.”

“And you,” Goldstein said, pointing to another volunteer, “I would like for you to just walk around and not talk to anybody, [like you’re] shell-shocked. Your hearing’s bad, you can’t follow any commands, they should physically have to walk off and move you to somewhere else.”

EVP trainees uncover a ‘baby’ in the rubble. (Photo by Erica Rimlinger)

To the rest of the volunteers, Goldstein instructed: “Typically, when a missile hits a building, there’s going to be a huge concussion blast. It’s going knock your hearing and your balance out for a few seconds. After that, a lot of screaming, a lot of yelling, I’ll grab some blood real quick and freshen up your wounds so it looks pretty bad. They should triage you. Take yourself out of being EMTs and any other training you guys have. Just be civilians that don’t know what to do. Just be completely confused and bewildered.”

Their scenario set, the victims lined up in front of the rubble site as the newly trained search-and-rescue volunteers continued their drills, unaware of the simulation scenario that would soon unfold.

Having spent a long day in training, the search-and-rescue volunteers were ostensibly prepared to expect the unexpected. But, as the temperatures sank with the setting sun, the trainees faced one more test.  The carefully planned, unplanned emergency would unfold in 3, 2 … .

Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.

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