Missile attacks on city centers, chemical warheads and devastating earthquakes – none of these nightmare scenarios is in the realm of the impossible in our corner of the world.

Most members of the public, while acutely aware of the existence of the threats, prefer to focus on other, more optimistic thoughts.

But the IDF Home Front Command’s Search and Rescue Battalions – a growing division within the military – are training four (soon to be five) battalions solely to ensure that the army is able to deploy forces to potential disaster zones and save as many lives as is humanly possible.

Thirty-eight-year-old Lt.-Col. Golan Vach, a father of six, is the commander of the Search and Rescue Battalions, which do most of their training at a base in Zikim, near Ashkelon.

Vach has a wealth of infantry combat experience, having served in the Givati and Paratrooper brigades for a total of 15 years.

He told The Jerusalem Post this week that the Search and Rescue Battalions are every bit as essential to national security as combat units.

“We go in and rescue people from wrecked buildings. We operate in conventional and unconventional surroundings,” Vach said, referring to scenes that could be contaminated with radioactive, chemical and biological substances.

“With all the threats being talked about in the headlines now,” he said, acknowledging talk of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, “the relevance of these types of forces is high.”

Members of the brigades have heard the headlines on Syria’s chemical weapons in recent days, but the news has not had much of an effect on them, Vach continued.

“It doesn’t matter. We work on this scenario continually around the clock [irrespective of headlines],” he said.

The IDF is working all year around to train its units to operate in an environment affected by unconventional substances and has equipped its rescue forces with what it says is the most advanced protective gear in the world.

“Our aim is to go into an area, which could be a highway affected by a spill from an bleach container... or a building struck by a chemical warhead, to identify and tag the substances, decontaminate people and then treat the chemical,” explained Vach.

Over the past five years, four search-and-rescue brigades have been created, and a fifth is set to come into existence in August.

Nevertheless, Vach said, it will be civilians themselves who will be most active in rescue efforts. “The Home Front Command invests a lot of resources to help civilians to help themselves,” he added.

During the 2010 Haiti earthquake disaster, 150,000 people who were trapped in rubble were rescued by civilians compared to 142 people who were rescued by professional units that flew in from around the world, including Israel.

Vach said he expected the percentage of people saved by professional teams to be much higher in Israel in the event of a missile attack or an earthquake situation.

Once on the scene, members of the brigades deploy engineers, electricians and doctors and disconnect gas, electricity and water.

“The latter two don’t mix well,” he said.

Then searchers are taught to “use the most advanced equipment we know about in the world – their eyes and ears,” to locate trapped individuals before relying on radar and thermal imaging systems.

“A person can give a better picture than any dog, acoustics equipment, or radar,” he explained.

“We look for people who can give us information, like a woman who might say her mother sent her a text message saying she is trapped. If we know she was in the living room, our engineer will simulate what the building looked like before it collapsed and locate the mother,” Vach said.

These kinds of pinpoint rescues are called “surgical steps” in professional jargon, and they provide the focus for the first 24 hours after the disaster.

On the second day, as time runs out for trapped survivors, the rescuers will bring in heavy equipment like bulldozers and begin sifting through rubble “in the most gentle way” possible, in order to find people.

“We’re building up soldiers who can work in very narrow spaces and deal with very difficult scenes. Their muscles must be able to break stones, with very small space for momentum, over a long period of time. They are put under pressure and, at the end of the six-month training course, we have someone who can enter this kind of scene,” Vach said.

Despite the wide range of man-made threats facing Israel, the Home Front Command believes that the threat of an earthquake remains the number one disaster scenario in terms of scope of damage.

Even in a moderate earthquake, tens of thousands of people could be impacted. “We know we’re due for one now. There has been one every 150 years. In 1837 there was one that killed 2,000 to 3,000 people in Nablus alone,” Vach said. “The chances are low, but should a major earthquake strike, the damage would be awful.”

The Search and Rescue Battalions train all year round for just such a scenario and have large numbers of trained reserve troops on call.

In the event of an earthquake, the battalions can be divided up into tiny groups to cope with the demand. The groups can be as small as four soldiers each, with one commanding over three of his comrades, should the destruction be widespread.

Asked if he is preoccupied with the disaster scenarios when he comes home to his six children, Vach said, “Even if I wanted to think about Hezbollah and Nasrallah, when I’m home, I’m only thinking about meals and showers for the kids.”

Yarden Greenhoyz, 19, has been serving in the battalions for a year and would be one of the soldiers called to respond should disaster strike.

She said that after months of training in wreckage sites, pulling dolls out of ruins and embarking on an all-night exercises that have lasted 17 hours, she is as ready as she’ll ever be.

“The training is like a war. No one knows how they will respond if they’re fired on, if they pull out a mangled body, or hear screams. The response is individual,” she said.

“I know I’ll feel stress. But I chose this role, and I will force myself to deal with it. That’s what rescuing is about,” Greenhoyz said.

“We hope these scenarios will be confined to training only,” she added.

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