Personal Planning
From Israel, Lessons in Civil Defense

JERUSALEM -- Having already experienced an Iraqi missile attack during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Israeli government says it is now much better organized for civil defense than it was 12 years ago.

Officials say the goal is to provide the gear and the information necessary so Israeli citizens can be relatively certain of what to do and how to protect themselves in the event of an attack.

Fear and lack of preparation were major problems in Israel the last time the United States went to war with Iraq. Of the 74 Israelis who died in cases listed as attack-related, all but six died of heart problems blamed on war-related stress, according to the National Insurance Institute.

Israel revamped its entire civil defense system in the aftermath of the Gulf War, creating reinforced safe areas to provide protection against direct conventional attack as well as other types of threats. The new Home Front Command, a component of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), has extensive authority over almost all of Israel's civil, police and medical services in the event of national emergency.

"The Israeli public is one of the most highly protected populations," said Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, spokeswoman for the IDF.

Despite nationwide preparations and an early warning system, however, recent polling indicates Israelis are still skeptical about whether preparations are sufficient and adequate to offer real protection.

In the Gulf War, only two deaths were considered directly related to damage from Iraqi Scud missiles or shrapnel resulting from attempts to shoot them down with U.S. Patriot missiles. The National Insurance Institute said four people suffocated from improper use of gas masks.

Central to the Israeli civil defense plan is the idea that security is created by a progressive series of systems that alert the public, provide information and tools and create specific measures for safety under attack. The Home Front Command's doctrine of civil defense "can be thought of as concentric circles of increasing protection, with the individual citizen at their center," said Col. Gili Shenhar, special assistant to the Home Front commander.

The outer circles include an early warning system based on a national system of sirens and a link to all Israeli radio and television stations. The inner circles are based on "protected space" and "personal protection kits."

The concept of protected space involves a location that is easy to reach and capable of providing those who stay in it with protection against both conventional and nonconventional weapons for several hours. By law, every new apartment building, or addition to existing structures built since 1992, must be equipped with an "apartment protected space" or "floor protected space." These are built with extra-thick concrete walls and only one window and door, both of which must be resistant to explosions and gases.

Israelis who live in older buildings have been instructed to designate an inner room with one window as a protected space. When notified by the Home Front Command, they are to prepare the room by covering the door and window of the room with plastic sheeting and equip it with canned goods, battery-operated radios, extra batteries and heavy-duty tape. (The government has capped the cost of batteries to prevent price-gouging.) In addition, every household is instructed to have at least three gallons of bottled water per person, in case the nation's water supply becomes contaminated.

By law, all public areas, such as shopping malls, large office buildings, schools and community centers, must have adequate bomb shelters. Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station, in an area where many migrant workers live, would serve as a communal bomb shelter capable of housing hundreds of people.

All Israeli citizens, as well as tourists and foreign workers, are entitled to a free personal protection kit, which includes a gas mask and injectable atropine to combat the effects of nerve gas. Accompanying instructions are in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English. Translations into Amharic, Spanish and Braille are being prepared.

There are also special masks for infants and children, the elderly and individuals with respiratory difficulties. A tent-like device is available for disabled individuals unable or unwilling to wear a mask. People who use assisted breathing devices will be provided with a device to hook their gas mask filters to home and portable ventilators.

The government estimates that more than 90 percent of Israelis now have gas masks. Foreign tourists will receive gas masks at their hotels, and students will get them through their universities. Palestinians living in the parts of the territories under Israeli Civil Administration and Palestinians who hold Israeli identity cards also are entitled to free kits.

The Education Ministry, in coordination with the Home Front Command, has conducted emergency drills and trained children how to put on their masks. In most high schools, teams of students and teachers have been specially trained.

Israelis have been instructed not to open their protection kits before they are told to do so. During the Gulf War, several dozen people were injured when they accidentally injected themselves with atropine, a chemical antidote for nerve agents.

Soldiers and emergency personnel have already received smallpox vaccinations. The military is also prepared to distribute potassium iodide tablets, which can counteract effects of radiation exposure. The Health Ministry said it has prepared family drug kits, including antibiotics, but these have not been distributed.

In the event of a missile attack, sirens will sound throughout the country. Television and radio stations will broadcast a Hebrew code, Homat Barzel, or "Iron Wall." Israelis will be directed to turn off air conditioners and electric appliances, close water taps and gas canisters, move to their designated protected space and seal the opening.

Text-beepers have been distributed to the hearing-impaired so that they can receive all civil defense warnings. The IDF has set up a multilingual Web site concerning preparations, which registers about 4,000 hits a day, according to Shenhar of the Home Front Command. Volunteer hot lines are open on an increased schedule. The Israel Medical Association is running emergency hot lines for doctors and the public, providing information on availability of vital health services and updates on treatment of biological and chemical attacks.

Despite the preparations, there is still concern here about infrastructure and compliance with regulations. There has been criticism that schools do not have sufficient shelter for their students and that many security procedures in private homes remain substandard.

Furthermore, critics say that many existing shelters are not serviceable. In routine times, they are used as synagogues, clubhouses and storage spaces, and some are filled with equipment and furniture. Others are neglected and unsanitary. Municipal authorities are responsible for maintaining public shelters, but consumer groups report that they have not done so.

According to a recently published research study, only 14 percent of the population trusts the usefulness of gas masks and the concept of protected space. The Jerusalem Post has reported that an estimated 25 percent of Israelis with children intend to take their families to the countryside, away from urban centers. There are other estimates that 250,000 people may try to leave the country if it comes under attack. Officials say they cannot guarantee that Israeli commercial airports will be functioning.

-- Eetta Prince-Gibson
Special to The Washington Post