Israel’s hard-won disaster expertise reaches South America

Israeli experts in disaster response stress communication and infrastructure when teaching Chilean professionals how to cope with mass casualties. Israeli and Chilean participants in the course designed to help Chile handle mass casualty situations in the wake of disasters. It …

Israeli experts in disaster response stress communication and infrastructure when teaching Chilean professionals how to cope with mass casualties.

Chilean-Israeli-disaster-relief

Israeli and Chilean participants in the course designed to help Chile handle mass casualty situations in the wake of disasters.

It was a strange twist of fate: At the same time as an Israeli emergency response team was planning a program to train Chilean professionals in how to handle mass casualty situations, disaster struck in Chile, when an 8.8 Richter Scale earthquake hit the country in February, killing hundreds.

Last month, an Israeli team of six professionals traveled to Santiago to analyze the aftermath of the disaster and hold a five-day workshop to train more than 300 emergency response personnel from Chile and Paraguay in how to deal with mass casualty events.

Israel’s long history of coping with terror and formidable road accidents has prepared the country to deal with the worst, says Gila Hyams who heads the Teaching Center for Trauma Mass Casualty Situations at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Israel.

She and her team travel the world teaching medical staff and response teams how to deal with events that most people would prefer not to even think about.

While Hyams was aware of the earthquake in Chile, she tells ISRAEL21c that she could never have imagined the scope of the disaster because it wasn’t emphasized in the media she was exposed to in Israel. “When we arrived there they took us to the area of the tsunami, which was caused by the earthquake, and we saw something unbelievable,” she recounts.

“We’ve learned with blood”

A whole village on the country’s southern coast that was built in contravention to the building codes had been swept into the sea, killing 60 people. Adding to the tragedy, the community center set up to deal with emergencies was also swept away with the massive tidal wave, leaving no place for the critically injured to be treated. And the absence of efficient communication with the authorities to secure needed help – even for the most basic things like bandages – made matters even worse.

In their workshop, the Israeli team, comprised of doctors and members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), focused on communication and infrastructure planning – the two most problematic areas in the Chilean experience. And since by Latin American standards Chile is considered a very developed country, it is hoped that the ripple effects of the workshop will be better emergency responses in the entire region.

Each of the six Israelis led a working group, through which they shared the Israeli experience, unique in the world. Hyams says that the workshop “was a real eye opener” for the participants. “We’ve learned through blood, through the mass causalities we have here [in Israel] from terror attacks,” she says. At the same time, Hyams feels compelled to mention “… the heroism of the medical teams that worked in such awful conditions during the catastrophe.”

Among the Chileans who attended the workshop were senior members of Chile’s air and ground forces and representatives from its rescue units and police force. News of the Israeli delegation also drew 12 doctors and nurses from Paraguay.

“These people get paid for this and we regulate what they need to do,” explains Hyams, who has also brought a number of teams to the United States where American peers learn about the Israeli response to emergencies.

Chile-Earthquake-Remains

A staircase left standing without its building in the wake of a devastating tsunami that hit Chile in February when an earthquake shook the South American country.

She has been to Dayton, Ohio; to a conference at New York University; another in Dallas, Texas; and most recently her team was in Detroit, to trade tips with specialists there. “We learn about trauma, and it is mass casualty we teach. We have more experience in this area unfortunately,” she says. Also, due to Rambam’s expertise with mass casualties, the center recently held a course in trauma for medical personnel in NATO countries.

Stressing communications and infrastructure

Team member Dr. Amir Blumenfeld, former head of the IDF Trauma Unit, relates that communications were so uneven following the earthquake in Chile that “… when we arrived there we found that… in some of the areas nobody knew what had happened.” And Hymans adds, “There weren’t enough people to treat the injured. They couldn’t even find bandages.

“One of the most important points to stress when dealing with this situation is collaboration between ambulance, police and army and hospitals. They didn’t have this in Chile. We have many things in place [in Israel], on our computers, and a network that connects representatives, on call, who are ready to deal with a state of mass casualties,” he says.

“When they get the calls they will all arrive to the same place for command and control, which will include a rep from the ministry of health, the hospitals, police and army.” This is so all the forces can be united on a common front. And while it sounds intuitive, a lack of communication and ground control was one of the criticisms that the Bush Administration faced over its response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Hyams lauds the Jewish community in Santiago for helping to rebuild the local medical support system: “The pictures here are very difficult. Four months after the disaster there is still damage everywhere. Where hospitals once stood, there are now tents,” she says, pointing out that the Jewish community’s assistance has been very significant.

She would like to return to Chile and is in contact with MASHAV, Israel’s National Agency for International Development Cooperation, in the hope that the organization will help sponsor more workshops or bring Chileans to Israel to learn more. Her idea is to organize more workshops through a local MASHAV office in Santiago, set up to service the wider Latin American region.

The recent June workshop in Chile was sponsored by Israel’s Rambam Hospital; Israel’s Ministry of Health, the Jewish community in Chile, and the Las Condes Hospital, a private medical facility in Chile.

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About Karin Kloosterman

Karin Kloosterman lives in Jaffa, Israel. She is a journalist, writer and blogger who focuses on the environment and clean technology from Israel and the Middle East. Published in hundreds of newspapers around the world, Karin also writes for the Huffington Post and Green Prophet.