Did Turning Point 5 Begin With the Gas Explosion in Netanya?

An interview with Col. Yoram Lev-Ran.

Col. Yoram Lev-Ran did his entire army service in the Artillery Corps. From a simple soldier in the battery he rose to be the commander of an artillery support unit in the reserves. After studying at the National Security College, he went on to serve in the Home Front Command, first as commander of the Jerusalem District and in the past year and a half as commander of Training Base 16, the Home Front Command's National Search, Rescue and Civil Defense School.

The school is called "national" because in addition to preparing the soldiers and officers of the command, it provides courses for the entire Israel Defense Forces and for numerous civilian bodies in fields relating to the defense of the civilian home front.

lev-ran - Moti Kimche - June 20 2011
Moti Kimche

In the early hours of Friday morning, he was called urgently together with teams from the school and soldiers from the Kedem battalion to take charge of efforts to rescue those trapped in the building that had suffered a gas explosion in Netanya. After 12 hours, the Home Front Command staff announced that there was no danger of additional people being trapped in the building and the operation was transferred to civilian bodies.

Together with the other officers and soldiers of the command, Lev-Ran has been participating since yesterday morning in Turning Point 5, the national emergency drill that this year is simulating a large-scale attack by missiles on populated areas inside Israel.

Yoram Lev-Ran, following the gas explosion in Netanya, can it be said that the Home Front drill started two days early?

In military terms, it can certainly be said that we went straight into the thick of Turning Point 5. The event in Netanya is the kind we classify as "a routine emergency event." It resembles in many of its components an event we would have to deal with during a time of emergency - 12 hours of searching for people trapped and survivors in a building that has been hit. It is also very similar to exercises and war games that we routinely do together with civilian emergency bodies and local authorities. It proved itself now in real time, the cooperation and the clear-cut hierarchy. There are of course many lessons to be learned but it worked well and the way all the different bodies cooperated deserves mention.

What is the role of the Home Front Command in an event like that in Netanya that does not happen during a war or as a result of a terrorist attack?

We arrived on the scene when the police, the fire brigade and Magen David Adom were already there - they are the first to respond. We arrived some 40 minutes after the event and our part is to fill in the holes, that which the immediate forces do not know how to do. The police close off the area, MDA treats the victims, the firemen cut off the electricity and water and put out the fire if there is one, and they also rescue people who are trapped if they see them. We go into the more intensive stage that comes later. We have the capability of entering a destroyed building no matter how complex, in order to locate trapped people for many hours and even days. Even weeks.

But there is a huge difference between one isolated incident where one can invest all the attention, and a situation like a war or earthquake where there are dozens of focal points that have to be attended to at the same time.

That distinction is correct. In a routine emergency incident, everything is very concentrated. You can bring a large number of forces and concentrate just on it. We don't build ourselves for routine emergencies. Everything that we drill, especially during Turning Point, is a derivative of what we will do in an emergency. The drill this week is spread wide across the nation, from the far north to the far south, and we take care of a huge number of events simultaneously. We also drill hospitals, police, the fire brigades and Magen David Adom, as well as the workers in collaboration with the government offices.

When such a large number of bodies are involved, who takes responsibility?

In Netanya, and during the Carmel blaze, we joined the Israel Police that according to law is in charge of routine events, so that we could give our complementary assistance. Of course the sovereign is responsible. In a democracy, it is the government, and the local authority at the local level. Since the Second Lebanon War, we have been joined by the National Emergency Authority that coordinates with the government offices and the local authorities. ... In an emergency, of course, the whole business is much more complicated. The IDF is deployed and provides a broad answer when it is called up for a national emergency. The police, firemen and MDA work all the time and together we supply the citizen with the whole suit. It begins with rescue, continues with medical treatment and rehabilitation which means getting the citizen back in his home. The local council plays an integral part in that because the citizen elects his local council head directly, pays taxes to him and complains when things go wrong. That has to be the way also in an emergency. We see in the local council the building block for the functioning of the home front in emergencies as well. The Turning Point 5 exercise also gives expression to this.

But the bottom line is that, despite all the drills and the cooperation, also when there is no war or earthquake, the citizens bear the brunt because of some thief who stole the gas pipes or a few youngsters who set fire to a mattress, and then there is a big disaster. Perhaps more should be invested in law enforcement at the most local and individual levels?

That is a good question that is being asked of the wrong person. That is a question for the sovereign at the political and local levels that are responsible for law enforcement, supervision and control. We come to deal with the results of a disaster or when there is a national emergency and a distinction must be made between what we are responsible for and the fields of law enforcement about the intactness of gas, electricity cables and building regulations. But in events like earthquakes or large-scale war, the home front bodies are prepared to act. Since the Second Lebanon War, we are well prepared for events. For natural disasters we are a little less well adapted but we are working on that all the time and the teams that went to help in the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan served that as well. It is important just to stress that this week's drill is not merely for the Home Front Command and the other organizations, it is for the general public also and every single citizen must take advantage of the situation and practice with himself and his family members.