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First on the Scene: Israel’s Search and Rescue Efforts

By Randy Pinsky

The world was stunned when a devastating 7.8 earthquake hit Turkey and Syria in early February, leveling entire city blocks and causing an estimated death toll of 42,000. Israel’s search and rescue teams and affiliated aid organizations including Magen David Adom, IsraAid and United Hatzalah were among the first on the scene to arrive in Turkey[1].

As a leader in advanced sonar imaging, mapping devices and sensors, the Israeli teams brought a unique combination of speed and targeted efficiency. While they would be compelled to leave due to security threats against them, they set a new standard in disaster response, inspired by the Jewish tradition that saving one life is akin to saving the whole world. 

Devastation in Turkey

Where do you start when an earthquake causes the destruction of thousands of buildings in the middle of winter? As Turkish journalist Rafael Sadi told Israel Today“Ten cities in Turkey were almost erased” in what has been called the most devastating earthquake in the country’s history. With time of utmost essence, it is essential that searching is done with intention and strategy.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) called the rescue mission ‘Operation Olive Branch’. Employing sophisticated mapping capabilities and advanced sensors, they were able to contribute critical insight for maximizing survivor location.

Experts Through Necessity

How did Israeli search and rescue teams develop their expertise to such an extent? In international disaster response, the Mexican and Israeli teams have been recognized for their specialized talent, but with skills developed due to different realities. To elucidate, “The Israelis come trained by war. The Mexicans, by natural disaster.”

Indeed, the Mexican Topos (Spanish for ‘moles’) teams gained notoriety for their response to the massive 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City where there was poor governmental response. Identified by their bright jumpsuits and helmets, their onsite fearlessness and efficiency is well known.

Israeli expertise, in contrast, was also honed out of necessity, but more out of the unfortunate need to respond to terror attacks and security threats. The Israeli Defense Forces have adapted many of their counter-terrorism technology and R & D (research and development) for natural disasters, usually arriving first on the scene.

The Boys in the Cave

Who doesn’t remember those harrowing days in July 2018 when a Thai boys soccer team was trapped in a steadily flooding underground cavern? Seeking refuge from a torrential storm, what started as a fun adventure quickly became a terrifying nightmare.

First responders raced against the clock – beyond the complexity of the situation and the rising water was the impossibility of maintaining ongoing contact with conventional communication devices due to the long and intertwined underground cave system.

Israeli technology was central to solving this problem.

Uzi Hanuni, CEO of Maxtech NetWorks, had long been devoted to inventing a communication device that could bypass barriers following the tragedy of September 11th when responders lost contact. “I decided that rescue forces shouldn't die in attempting rescue…[and committed myself] to build[ing] a resilient network that doesn’t require infrastructure.”

The Israeli invention is able to circumvent the challenges impeding other technologies as it does not require cell phone towers, making communication possible even without reception - critical during an emergency situation.

What may first appear as mere walkie-talkies are actually emergency mobile communication devices that wirelessly keep in touch even through concrete or stone, “akin to beacons being lit one hilltop after another, gradually sending a message in a type of relay league.”

With these ‘magic’ radios donated by the company (a value of $100,000), teams were able to coordinate the rescue. “No other system could work here, except ours,” Hanuni told Israel21c.  It’s helping to keep the first responders alive.” 


A more recent example of Israeli ingenuity was in the Surfside condo collapse in Florida of June 2021.

In order to maximize the chances of successfully reaching the victims (there were unfortunately no survivors due to the ‘pancake’ nature of the devastation), Israel created countless models and replicas to map out the residents’ probable locations. 

Radar and waves can be used to bounce off objects and thereby identify people, “similar to the technology in cars that beeps when [they]’re close to hitting something backing up.” This approach can be much more useful and faster than cell phone geolocation. Where time is precious, “in a disaster situation, data is only useful if it can be interpreted quickly.”

The Israeli teams engaged in extensive interviews with the families regarding the residents’ habits and most importantly, the layout of their apartments in order to guess their potential whereabouts.

Through identifying personal belongings, the Israeli teams were able to isolate floors and even rooms, heightening the chance of locating the people. In doing so, “what the untrained [would] s[ee] as a pile of rubble, the IDF team viewed as a building in puzzle form. And each piece…pointed them toward where a victim might be found.

For instance, Colonel Golan Vach, head of the Israel Defense Forces unit specializing in search and rescue operations, recalled finding a dead dog. Knowing there were only two dogs in the building meant that this vital clue could provide invaluable insight as to the specific apartment and subsequently, the particular resident in question.

Due to their efforts and ingenuity, the Israeli rescue unit was able to recover 81 out of the 97 residents; a remarkable rate. 

Blue and White Innovations 

Israeli teams are usually the first to arrive in disaster zones including the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, Haiti’s earthquake of 2010, the typhoon in the Philippines in 2013, and the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, setting up field hospitals[2] and providing training and supplies.

In order to always be at the ready, the IDF regularly engages in simulation drills to acclimatize teams to the sights, sounds and smells of devastated sites. Better preparation in advance enables for more successful outcomes in reality.

While Israel may not have the resources or funds of countries such as the US, they make up for it by being “small and swift”, remarkably efficiently and doing more with less. Within the first day of the Turkey disaster, they had set up a field hospital, treating over 200 people a day. 

Emergency innovations are staggering in their imaginativeness and futuristic qualities:

●      Res-Q-Cell: Can detect cell reception to locate individuals

●      Watergen: Can generate drinking water from the atmosphere and purify existing sources

●      Plasma replacements that do not require refrigeration and are activated by water

●      Pocket BVM: A collapsible resuscitation and respiratory support device

●      SkySaver: Used for evacuating people from buildings up to 120 stories tall

●      Xaver (Hebrew for ‘friend’) Sense-Through-the-Wall System imaging solution

●      Ground robots that can safely go where humans cannot

“You brought great honor to the State of Israel,” stated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon the teams’ return. “[Doing] the most sacred work a person can do - saving the lives of others…a small country with a huge soul.”


[1] Israeli teams did not/could not go to Syria as it did not request or allow its assistance however it is sending medication, blankets and tents.

[2] The United Nations paid Israel a rare compliment in publicly recognizing their medical aid teams as “the very best in the world.”


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