Members of the Negev Highlands Rescue Team and Colorado’s Front Range Rescue train together last month in Colorado.Mountainous terrain can be treacherous whether in Israel’s Negev desert or in the Colorado Rockies. And that’s why joint training exercises between rescue units for the two locations have proven to be so beneficial to both sides.

That was the assessment following last month’s visit by ten members of Israel’s Negev Highlands Rescue Team (NHRT) to Colorado’s Front Range where they staged mock rescue and search exercises, exchanged ideas and shared techniques while searching for volunteers “lost” in the woods with members of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group and the Alpine Rescue Team.

“The main focus of both sides is to rescue and help people. We both do the same things we just do some of them differently,” said NHRT commander Orly Sharir upon her return to Israel. “It’s very interesting to see different methods and compare notes. It’s moving information from one side to the other,” she told ISRAEL21c.

The two groups started the exchange program in 2002, and sometime next year, a group from Colorado will travel to Israel for a reciprocal visit. Last month’s training included now and avalanche rescue, technical rock rescue, missing
persons searches and helicopter operations.

The exchange program is made possible by the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, which enjoys a partnership with the Ramat Negev Region, the home of the NHRT. The goal of the partnership is to help create people-to-people relationships and encourage direct contact and personal involvement between Denver/Boulder residents and Israelis.

“One of the most valuable things that we get from it is, with all these people doing the same thing, you get completely different perspectives,” said Steve Chappell, assistant group leader for the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group.

Chappell said the Israelis have taught his group quite a few things. “They are very good at man-tracking skills,” he told the Boulder Daily Camera. “In Israel in 2003, we were amazed at how they could track someone. We’ve sent some of our people to man-tracking training classes since then.”

Set up in 1992, The NHRT is a volunteer squad that performs rescues in an area of southern Israel, where the terrain is dry and sandy, with few trees and steep cliffs. Its 90 volunteers cover the largest geographical area in Israel. The volunteers come from all walks of Israeli life – men and women, secular and religious, Jewish and Bedouin.

“We have around 40-50 rescues a year,” Sharir’s assistant commander Rami Musli told ISRAEL21c. Most of the missions are to rescue travelers who lost their way, got hurt, or got stranded by floods, and can involve high-angle cliff rescue, and whitewater and flood rescue. “It always rises around holiday times, and during the Succot and Pessah vacations, and in the summer.”

All Israeli rescue teams are part of an umbrella organization called the Fast Israel Rescue Search Team (FIRST).

“Besides our rescue team in Har Hanegev, there are nine other units throughout Israel from the Golan to Eilat,” said Musli.

The FIRST groups don’t keep their expertise strictly to Israel, though. Members of the team participated in the rescue operations to find and save survivors from the massive 1999 earthquake that struck Turkey. Musli emphasized that the team is ready to assist rescue operations anywhere in the world on a very short notice.

According to Sharir, the process of joining the NHRT unit is long and painstaking.

“Once a person decides he want to volunteer for our team, he tries out for a year or so, and only once we ascertain if he’s serious, we’ll start to give him all kinds of courses,” she said, adding “We don’t have any set hours ? we’re on call 24 hours a day.”

All NHRT members undergo courses in areas like swift water rescue, and cliff rescue. In order to hone their skills, the volunteers train at least one day a month, participate in three big exercises a year.

Sharir, who always enjoyed outdoor life, became interested in rescue work by chance.

“After I did my army service, I took a rappelling course. It was in the Negev, and one of the instructors said ‘you’re here, you should join our rescue team.’ This was in 1996, and I’ve been here ever since,” she said.

Sharir and Musli find the joint exercises with the Colorado teams both educational and stimulating.

“We teach them some techniques, but we also learn from them. It’s very nice sharing between the two teams. When you’re here in the desert, you’re not exposed to new techniques. It’s valuable, even if you don’t end up using them,” said Musli.

“I think it’s very useful even if only to get to know people personally. Most of the rescue members of the Alpine and Rocky Mountain units aren’t Jewish or very aware of Israel. So it’s gratifying to expose them to Israelis our culture and our people,” added Sharir.

“We learn a lot from each other,” Charley Shimanski, education director of the national Mountain Rescue Association and a member of the local Alpine Rescue Team, told the Denver Post. “We do a pretty good job of sharing ideas around the country, but not so much internationally. This gives us a great opportunity to see rescues we’ve never used.”