Nearly 3,000 lives were lost after two hijacked aircraft crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001. According to the official findings of the committee formed to investigate the disaster, there were no orderly evacuation procedures and the instinct to flee clashed with instructions to remain, resulting in catastrophe. Many lives could have been saved with proper evacuation techniques.
It is no secret that Al-Qaeda intends to strike at the US again, although the ‘Great Satan’ is not Al-Qaeda’s only target. Security sources fear that the terrorist organisation is also planning similar attacks in Israel, which means that it is crucial that the US and Israel are well prepared for any emergencies that may arise.
It comes as no surprise that in the years after 11 September, the US government has looked to Israel for help in safeguarding against the next attack and developing speedy evacuation systems for use in multi-storey buildings.
The Standards Institute of Israel (SII) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) have been co-operating in an attempt to set a joint US–Israeli standard for homeland security. In the US, the ANSI is an umbrella organisation that co-ordinates standards for all areas of the economy. When it comes to US homeland security, however, before 11 September no standards existed that were capable of withstanding the dangers from international terror.
Aware of the lack of standards in the US, Israel decided to look for ways to co-operate with the biggest target market for Israeli industry. Michael Wolf, director of the standardisation division at ISI, says that if Israel and the US could agree on joint standards, "Israel would be able to participate and define the technical requirements for the products it plans on marketing".
Israel’s interest in establishing common standards with the US is obvious. On the other side of the equation, why the US would be interested in co-operating with Israel is a more interesting question. "The Americans want to work with us because they realise that we have had a lot of experience in this field which they lack," says Wolf. "Many of the technologies that we are using have been tried and found effective. We have standards in Israel in the field of homeland security which are not found anywhere else in the world." In the past, Wolf adds, the US discovered that Israel has developed many high-technology products for defence purposes and realises that similar products can be adapted for civilian use.
The search for a common standard
ANSI and ISI are investigating ways of developing common US and Israeli standards in a joint co-operation programme. "Israeli industry would be involved in the development of an Israeli standard, and the Americans would participate in defining the technical requirements for the products that they would like to market," according to Wolf. Such co-operation would also allow US industry to ease into the Israeli market, because the standards would be identical; this could facilitate co-operation between US and Israeli companies in the development of new products.
The ISI is securing the collaboration of interested parties in defining building evacuation-related products and is working to establish the performance characteristics of these products. The product’s performance requirements would be specified to relate to a variety of factors, including the strength of a material and its resistance to heat to an allowable level. Human characteristics would also be taken into account, together with the end-users of the product. All of these factors have to be taken into consideration when establishing the standards in terms of the performance required.
Wolf emphasises that ISI and ANSI are looking at products that would enable people to escape as quickly as possible from a high-rise building in an emergency, using a product specifically designed for such a scenario. In an emergency situation, stairs are usually the only way for people to escape. From a level of 20 floors or more, however, it would be difficult for most people to manage and stairwells are limited in accommodating large numbers of people. The use of elevators in an evacuation is not encouraged, although studies have been carried out to determine how elevators could operate under certain circumstances in an emergency.
A number of Israeli companies are developing products for evacuation from buildings during an emergency situation, such as fires or a terrorist threat. Prominent among these companies are Escape Rescue Systems and AES Israel Ltd.
Escape Rescue Systems, run by Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jonathan (Yoni) Shimshoni, is a start-up company established 18 months ago. It employs less than 10 people, explains Shimshoni, and is involved in safety and security systems, evacuation being its main priority. The pilot project it is working on is a collapsible multiplatform system connected to a building, resembling a lifeboat as it comes over the side of the building.
The system consists of elevator-type cabins that travel down to the ground and open upward into five cabins. Upon opening, rescue workers are able to enter the building from the outside, help people get onto the platform and then descend to the ground. The system has a capacity for evacuating 150 people at a time. However, Shimshoni emphasises that if more than one unit is used, 300-450 people could be rescued.
Another innovative evacuation is the Advance Modular Evacuation System (AMES) invented by Eli Nir, CEO of AES Israel, who developed the idea after his eight-year old son, Ofer, had to be rescued from the top floor of a hotel that had caught fire. The AMES system is a rescue chute made of fire-resistant material, which is strengthened by a rounded spring and support cables. Mounted on a building, the system’s internal power supply uncoils the chute when sensors detect smoke or intense heat. The chute can extend down 23 storeys in less than 10 seconds. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is senior adviser to AES Israel, was in Washington, DC recently for a demonstration of AMES to District of Columbia fire officials.
Israeli companies that are trying to sell products on the US market have all realised that one of the major barriers to success is the lack of a standard - a set of requirements that have been tested and proven effective in certain situations. Ziva Patir, director-general of the ISI, emphasises that while a product may be innovative, it would not be commercially attractive unless it complies with a specific standard.
Another channel was opened for Israeli companies to influence standards when a special committee for homeland security was established. Patir, in her capacity as vice-president of technical management at the International Standards Organisation, appointed Dr Avi Galor, vice-president of research and development at Rafael, as the Israeli representative on the advisory committee, together with Dr George W Arnold of ANSI.
Asked how standards are established, Dr Galor explains: " We examine ways of defining the threats and then decide what course of action should be taken. Standards have to be established as part of the measures to be taken. The first step is to look into existing standards and to see if they covered the needs of the security systems that deal with the threats." He adds that once deficiencies in the existing standards are discovered that were not designed specifically against terrorism, new standards will be created to deal with the new set of circumstances.
"Israel is not the only country suffering from terrorism," Dr Galor adds, "and we would like, as Israelis, to contribute to the international effort to provide security to people all over the world against the constant threat of terror."
Joe Charlaff is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem focusing on homeland security issues