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Israeli Expertise Brings Closure to Surfside Disaster in Matter of Days
United Hatzalah's Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit at the Surfside disaster site. (United Hatzalah)

Israeli Expertise Brings Closure to Surfside Disaster in Matter of Days

Innovative technologies, methodologies speed up recovery efforts while staving off psychological damage to victims’ families, search teams

The operation to search for survivors and bodies in the rubble of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Florida, a suburb of Miami, has been ongoing for two weeks. Sixty-four people have so far been confirmed dead and 76 are officially still missing. (Additional bodies have been recovered but authorities have yet to add them until their families are notified.)

On Thursday, June 24, at roughly 1:25 am Eastern Daylight Time, the 12-story building collapsed suddenly, with some reports stating that long-term degradation and structural issues were to blame for the incident.

By Friday, an Israeli task force was onsite, sifting through the upper layers of rubble in 12-hour shifts. The Israeli government conveyed offers of help from the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command search and rescue team, which has become a world-leading expert after assisting in many other disasters around the world.

The IDF’s National Search and Rescue Unit, along with members of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit of United Hatzalah, an Israeli emergency medical services organization, arrived in Surfside on Sunday morning. With them were volunteers from ZAKA, the Israeli emergency response organization that specializes in gathering body parts for Jewish burial. It was known that many Jewish residents, including 20 Israelis, were among the missing.

The mission is very difficult. We’re finding a lot of people dead, extracting them, pulling them out, finding memories, furniture, toys … all smashed

IDF Home Front Command: High-tech modeling shows where to search

Col. Golan Vach, commander of the IDF Home Front Command’s National Search and Rescue Unit, spoke to The Media Line from the site of the building collapse at Surfside. He said it was one of the worst disasters he had ever seen. “The mission is very difficult. We’re finding a lot of people dead, extracting them, pulling them out, finding memories, furniture, toys … all smashed.”

Col. Golan Vach, commander of the IDF Home Front Command’s National Search and Rescue Unit, at the Surfside disaster site. (IDF Home Front Command)

Asked about the cause of the collapse, Vach said it did not matter to search and rescue efforts. “What is important to us is the current situation.”

Using building information modeling tools and technologies and careful measurements taken on site, the Home Front Command was able to generate 3D digital models of the building before and after its collapse. This, combined with information gathered from surviving family members and friends, produced highly accurate information on where among the layered piles of debris each room in each apartment, and each missing person, could be expected to be found.

“We can tell you where each missing person is located based on the where the building stood initially and how it fell, where each apartment was, where each person slept,” Vach says. “We spoke to family members who gave us information on the layout of the apartments and the bedrooms where their loved ones slept. Many more bodies have been found, but officially the numbers are not released yet.”

Most of the modeling work was done in Israel before the team left for Florida. The last stage was done in the field, and completed hours after they arrived.

This high-tech modeling allows the Home Front Command to advise the search teams – altogether, hundreds of people that have come to Florida from across the US and around the world – on the exact locations where they should concentrate their efforts to find each and every missing person.

As a result, the recovery of bodies is much faster than would be possible otherwise, which helps bring closure to grieving families. Officially, 76 people remain missing. But in some cases, confirmation of death must be delayed until family can be notified, so the actual number still missing is significantly lower.

We have to help them manage their grief while they are still waiting for answers, and those answers still haven’t come

United Hatzalah: Psychological first aid reduces risk of PTSD

Working closely with the Home Front Command, United Hatzalah’s mission at the Surfside disaster was not to search for survivors or the bodies of victims. Rather, the organization sent six members of its Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit (PCRU), along with a therapy dog, who worked with families and community members to help them process their grief.

This innovative unit was founded in 2016 by Miriam Ballin, a therapist who noticed, after a motorbike accidentally hit her, how traumatized the accident left onlookers who witnessed the incident. Her experience sparked a realization that emergencies require not only medical but also psychological first aid and intervention– for victims, family members, first responders, and others.

The PCRU has provided such psychological support in a variety of circumstances, from bus bombings and car accidents in Israel to natural disasters abroad such as hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as well as the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting.

Raphael Poch, an emergency medical technician in the PCRU, told The Media Line that first responders who identify that a person is having a strong emotional reaction to an emergency will call members of the psychotrauma unit, who then help the person to process their grief.

“The point of the unit,” Poch says, “is to prevent what is called an acute stress reaction … a state of cognitive dissonance that develops after someone witnesses or participates in a traumatic incident and doesn’t know how to process it.”

An untreated acute stress reaction can develop into an acute stress disorder, which itself can develop into posttraumatic stress disorder. Prompt and proper intervention following a traumatic event can prevent, or nip in the bud, an acute stress reaction, making the later development of PTSD less likely.

Poch says the PCRU’s hardest job in Florida was helping family members as they wait for news about a missing loved one. “We have to help them manage their grief while they are still waiting for answers, and those answers still haven’t come,” he says. “There were harrowing situations: People who lost spouses, children, loved ones.”

One of the best ways to help family members, Poch’s team found, was to ask them for help. Engaging family in information gathering helps recovery and identification efforts while relieving them of a terrible feeling of uselessness as they await new of their missing loved ones.

Together with the Home Front Command, the PCRU set up tables at the hotel where family members were staying, “and we started asking the family members to give us information about their loved ones who were missing – either identifying marks or clothes they might have been wearing or who was home, who wasn’t home but was expected to be home, maybe who was on vacation, etc.”

This effort both gave the family members something to do and provided a lot of useful information that sped up the recovery and identification process. In addition, the interaction with family members built trust between them and the professional teams and provided the PCRU with an opportunity to assess whether they needed psychological first aid.

The circle of people affected in a tragedy like the Surfside collapse is much greater than the direct victims and their families.

For example, rescue and recovery workers themselves need psychological support, which the PCRU provides. “That wasn’t as difficult as working with the families. They have resiliency built up. … First responders were on the scene knowing what they were going into.”

However, their stoicism can itself be a barrier to processing the situation. “A lot of first responders have a tough-guy mentality, and they don’t like to open up about things.”

First responders may also be reluctant to seek out mental health support on the job for fear that it could harm their professional advancement. “I don’t think that’s the case, but a lot of people feel it might be,” Poch said.

Further afield, Poch said, was a man from a neighboring building, which was also evacuated. “He was living in a hotel and he couldn’t find his bearings, he couldn’t process what was happening. We worked with him to let him know it was OK to feel sad and frightened.” After meeting with a clinical psychologist on the PCRU team, the man was able to process his feelings and recognize what was actually taking place.

The popular favorite on the PCRU team is Lucy, the therapy dog. Lucy, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, is “trained to sense people who are having a difficult emotional time,” Poch says, and “will just go up to people and initiate contact. It will initiate a relationship.”

A family member waiting for news about her missing relative pets Lucy, the PCRU team’s therapy dog. (United Hatzalah)

Petting a dog has an immediate calming effect on many people, and also helps them to open up emotionally and process their feelings. “We had a lot of situations where first responders, who wouldn’t talk to anybody, came up to our dog and started petting and interacting with her.”

Poch describes one member of America’s National Urban Search & Rescue team who came up to Lucy, started petting her, and cried for around 2 minutes. “And then he got up, said, ‘Thank you very much; I feel better,’ and walked off.” That, too, says Poch, is an important form of mental health care.

The PCRU team has returned to Israel, but Hatzalah is currently assessing whether to send another team since the recovery efforts and need for psychological support continue.

They were able, with our systems, to extract many, many people who were trapped underneath the buildings that had collapsed

Camero-Tech, seeing through walls

Netanya-based Camero-Tech, founded in 2004, develops micropower ultra-wideband radar systems that enable the detection of live objects behind walls and barriers. If people are trapped under concrete after a disaster like the Surfside condominium collapse, this is the technology first responders need to assist in search and rescue efforts.

Gilad Shadmy, Camero-Tech’s sales and marketing director, told The Media Line that in September 2017, the Camero-Tech system helped save many lives after a devastating earthquake in Mexico City, which killed 370 people and injured more than 6,000.

The IDF Home Front Command sent a delegation to assist local rescue efforts. They had purchased the Camero-Tech system, which they gave to local search and rescue teams. “They were able, with our systems, to extract many, many people who were trapped underneath the buildings that had collapsed,” Shadmy said.

Shadmy says Camero-Tech has several systems that can be helpful in search and rescue efforts after a building collapse. The Xaver-100 system “gives the operator the ability to get an indication of whether there is someone underneath the ruins” and how many meters away they are, up to a range of 20 meters from the operator. The Xaver-400 system detects not only the presence but also number and location of people hidden behind walls and barriers, also up to 20 meters away. The Xaver LR80 system enables the detection of live objects through a wall at more than 100 meters away.

The Camero-Tech team conducts rescue efforts using the Xaver-400 system. (Courtesy)

But at Surfside, though one person was rescued from the rubble, it now seems highly unlikely that there are any survivors left to find. On Wednesday, local authorities announced that the main objective of search teams was no longer rescue but recovery, and that the missing victims are presumed to be dead.

In a regular building collapse, you would find slabs of cement that create spaces and trap air inside after they fall. This allows people who are trapped inside to breathe, but here there is nothing

MAGNUS rescue firm: Everything crumbled to dust

Hilik Magnus is the founder of MAGNUS International Search and Rescue, a Tel Aviv-based emergency management and on-ground search and rescue service provider that works with insurance companies, independent travelers and international organizations.

The company’s team was among the first search and rescue groups to reach the disaster areas in Thailand, South India and Sri Lanka in the wake of the 2004 tsunami that hit the region and caused massive devastation. The company also provided help to find missing Israeli nationals following the 2011 earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand. More recently, MAGNUS was on the ground after the April 2015 earthquake that killed almost 9,000 people struck Nepal.

Hilik Magnus, founder of MAGNUS International Search and Rescue, May 2, 2005. (Hilik Magnus/Wikimedia Commons)

Though unfamiliar with the technical specifications of the collapsed Champlain Towers South, Magnus told The Media Line that the devastation appeared to be extreme and unlike other disaster sites he had seen.

“The building did not collapse normally. It looks like a heap of [rubble] from an eroded area.”

“It’s incredible what happened there and it’s very difficult because there is no machinery that can help.”

He noted that normally tractors and cranes would be used to remove cement slabs and iron bars, but that teams at Surfside have had to resort to manually removing rubble piece by piece due to the utter and total destruction.

“In a regular building collapse, you would find slabs of cement that create spaces and trap air inside after they fall. This allows people who are trapped inside to breathe, but here there is nothing. There is no chance that there are any survivors. Though I’m not there, it looks like everything has crumbled to dust.”

There is no technology, he said, that would make a difference in rescue efforts at this point.

“I have seen buildings fall in Turkey, Armenia and other places. … This collapse was extremely severe. I don’t know how they constructed this building, but it collapsed in a very absolute way. It turned into dust. It’s very strange.”

The fact that America asked us to come, was a great honor and privilege for us. And this cooperation led to great success working at a pace we never thought we could

Lesson learned

Returning to Col. Vach, the Israeli military search and rescue unit commander, The Media Line asked what lessons could be learned from the Surfside disaster.

The key to providing speedy closure for families awaiting news about their missing loved ones, Vach said, was cooperation.

“The fact that America asked us to come was a great honor and privilege for us. And this cooperation led to great success working at a pace we never thought we could.

“Everyone, including myself, estimated that it would take months to find the bodies. But now we’re talking about days.”

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