Friday, 24 March 2006

U.S. security officials train with the pros

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Israeli troops in biological warfare gear secure the area... david blumenfeld / special to the chronicle

Israeli troops in biological warfare gear secure the area in a mass-casualties toxicological exercise during a four-day conference. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Israelis demonstrate tools, tactics in fight against terrorism

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Joanne Hayes-White, San Francisco's fire chief, greets an... David Blumenfeld / special to the chronicle

Joanne Hayes-White, San Francisco's fire chief, greets an Israeli soldier at a high school during the drill. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Friday, March 24, 2006
Page A - 12

Nes Ziona, Israel -- A young Israeli firefighter tore the shirt off his back and insisted San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White take it home as a memento of a biochemical terror training drill she had just observed.

"I read about you on the Internet," said the Israeli, still breathless after spending an hour inside an orange biochemical protection suit under the blazing sun during a mock chemical attack on a school. "You're the first woman fire chief in San Francisco. You're my hero!"

Hayes-White was observing the exercise as part of a four-day conference on counterterrorism that attracted 130 U.S. law enforcement, emergency services and homeland security officials, the largest such delegation ever hosted by Israel. Other officials in the 23-member California delegation included San Francisco Deputy Police Chief Greg Suhr, Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton and Erroll Southers, deputy director of the California Office of Homeland Security.

At Wednesday's chemical attack drill, simulating a poison-gas attack on a school, first on the scene were an ambulance and a police cruiser. As the "victims" collapsed, rescue personnel donned protective gear in different colors to distinguish between those securing the scene and those helping victims. Arriving firefighters were responsible for isolating the toxic material, while a police helicopter overhead kept an eye out for escaping terrorists and monitored traffic flow.

Within minutes, more than 50 security and rescue personnel were on the scene, under the command of the senior police officer. The senior medic performed triage, tagging all victims according to the seriousness of their injuries -- and within 20 minutes all were on their way to a hospital. Finally, all the suited emergency officers were washed down in special showers connected to fire trucks.

"That's smart," said a sheriff's officer from California. "Back home, we'd have to find a hydrant to get those showers going. We never thought to hook them up to the fire trucks."

"It was truly impressive," Hayes-White said of the exercise as she packed away the shirt to take home for her 12-year-old son.

"Our whole world changed after 9/11. It is something that we plan for now, but we have very little expertise in it. We've studied it, but we haven't really lived it. To come to a place like this, really you're learning from the true experts," she said.

On Tuesday, the Americans thought the day's exercise had started early when they arrived at the national headquarters of the Israeli Border Police in Jerusalem and saw a series of roadblocks set up and emergency vehicles screaming out of the gates, sirens wailing.

But this was no drill. They were caught in the middle of the real thing.

Israeli Police Chief Moshe Karadi welcomed his guests with the news that a Palestinian suicide bomber was loose in the city.

"They brought us in and gave us a step-by-step playback of the events as they were unfolding," said Hayes-White.

An hour later, after they were briefed about a dramatic helicopter and motorcycle chase through police roadblocks on the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, Hayes-White and the U.S. delegates were told the suicide bomber had been captured, together with 15 pounds of explosives packed with nails and shrapnel. A suicide attack had been prevented, thanks to accurate intelligence and swift police reaction.

It was a real-time introduction to the pressures of security in Israel for participants in the four-day conference, hosted by the Border Police and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Participants attended intelligence briefings, counterterror drills, medical exercises and lectures from security, police and emergency services officials.

The Americans toured police surveillance facilities in the Old City of Jerusalem, visited a suicide-bomber exhibition at police headquarters and observed a full-blown counterterror exercise simulating a biochemical attack on a school, followed by emergency treatment of the mock victims at the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center.

At Ben-Gurion Airport and the control center for Israel Railways, the officials viewed state-of-the-art closed-circuit TV facilities with what the Israelis call behavioral video -- computer software that triggers an alarm when an unusual incident appears on the monitor.

Paul MacMillan, deputy chief of Boston's transit police, said the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority had been considering the installation of behavioral video. After seeing the Israeli system, he said he planned to recommend it: "We've been looking at it ... but we've never really seen it in actual operation."

The aim of the conference was to encourage cooperation in sharing information and training, and before the sessions ended, several U.S. officials were already planning joint training seminars with the Israelis for U.S. law enforcement officials.

Southers said he planned to hold a similar conference for state homeland security employees in conjunction with the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles. MacMillan said he would like to send his bomb-disposal teams to train in Israel, where police receive 200,000 alerts of suspicious packages every year.

"This country has excelled in safety and public security," Southers said of Israel. "What really strikes me here is that preparedness and security is a culture. It's something that we don't understand in the U.S. There are people in California who have zero resolve when it comes to this issue."

Suhr, the San Francisco deputy chief, said the trip had been "hugely useful." He said the analysis of mass-casualty incidents offered by lecturers were the best he had ever heard, and he intended to take them back home for training purposes.

"I've been doing this for 25 years, and I usually don't write anything. I just take the material they hand out," said Suhr. "This week, I've taken pages of notes because the things they say just strike you."

After four 16-hour days, the participants were joking grimly about graduating from the Israeli boot camp.

"The Israelis have kept us out of trouble," said one bleary-eyed participant. "I haven't even had time to buy gifts for my kids."

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