“We went as seven firefighters and came back as seven ambassadors for Israel,” says Capt. Scott Laird of the Rincon Valley Fire District, who spent Oct. 15-25 in Israel as part of Southern Arizona’s first Firefighters Without Borders delegation.
The group sought to learn, firsthand, about how Israel’s fire and rescue services respond to mass casualty situations. Capt. Richard Johnson of the Tucson Fire Department, who initiated the trip, explains that firefighters and emergency medical technicians in our region are trained to respond to mass casualties, but (thankfully) emergencies on that scale are relatively few and far between, making it difficult to implement lessons learned from those experiences. He thought, “Let’s meet with people who have encountered these situations more than once in their careers,” who are able to implement changes and see how they impact real life situations.
The trip was brought together under the auspices of the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation, which pulled in additional funding from a Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Compelling Needs Grant, the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, Temple Emanu-El, Congregation Anshei Israel and several private donors. No public funds were used to pay for the delegation, says Fire Foundation Chair Mike McKendrick.
“For being a non-world traveler, my eyeballs were opened up big and wide,” says Laird. “I don’t think that we in Tucson, or even in Arizona, have a clue about what could happen. In my 25 years [as a firefighter], I’ve only had to respond to one bombing — and that was a woman trying to kill her husband. Our heads are in the sand. Their heads are on a swivel. They’re a lot more aware of what can happen.”
The Arizona firefighters were welcomed with open arms and granted access to a wide range of services, from high level command centers to municipal fire stations and grassroots volunteer operations.
During their briefing at Ben Gurion International Airport, they were allowed into the control tower and met with the fire chief. “We had access to the most secure installation in the most security conscious nation on earth,” says Lt. Thomas Tucker of the Tucson Airport Authority Fire Department. “We were given credibility and access that I didn’t expect us to get.”
The group was particularly inspired by the culture of preparedness and volunteerism they encountered in
Israeli society as a whole. “I was impressed with the resiliency, the sense of community,” says Tucker. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Everyone seems like a first responder to me.”
It is this sense of communal responsibility, coupled with training through mandatory military service, that enables Israel to rely on a relatively small cadre of professional first responders. Visiting the main Jerusalem fire station the delegation learned that Jerusalem has 35 firefighters to serve over 1 million residents. “It’s incredible to think they can handle emergencies with that force,” says Capt. Kyle Canty of the Northwest Fire Department. “But every individual citizen has a sense of responsibility. With so many volunteers, they can manage with a smaller force.”
There are organizations responsible for emergency response — such as the Magen David Adom emergency medicine and ambulance service and ZAKA, which responds to help victims of terrorist attacks — that are staffed almost entirely by volunteers.
“When a fire station gets an emergency call, they send two to seven firefighters to the scene,” says Capt. Kris Blume of the Tucson Fire Department. “What they find when they get there is that neighbors are already helping each other. People are trained to be self-reliant and to be responsible for each other. Here, we are dependent on someone else to save the day.”
Blume also saw this philosophy of doing whatever it takes to save lives manifested at the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, north of Haifa near the Lebanese border. “That hospital has treated 30 Syrian militants with mortal wounds. We don’t hear about this in our country. They do it not for money or any kind of reward. Their priority is to save a life.”
Canty says one of the highlights was meeting people, especially the host families who took the firefighters into their homes for an overnight in Kiryat Malachi, Tucson’s TIPS (Tucson, Israel, Phoenix, Seattle) partnership city. “Israel is a warm and welcoming country,” he says. “It’s amazing how open people were to talk to us.”
In Bat Hadar, a town in the Hof Ashkelon region, which is also part of the TIPS partnership, the delegation met with the Israel Trauma Coalition and learned about their efforts at building resiliency on a grassroots level for people who live with the daily threat of rocket fire from Gaza. “That hit home for me,” says Division Chief Kelly McCoy from the Northwest Fire Department. “I never connected the dots before between terrorism and what terror feels like.”
For Capt. Mark Lytle of the Green Valley Fire District, the only Jewish firefighter in the delegation, what hit home was a video of children on a playground in Sderot, who had just 15 seconds to run to a bomb shelter at the sound of an air raid siren. “I thought of my kids. I have two kids at Anshei preschool. It makes it more personal, the feeling of being targeted because you are Jewish. It’s sobering to experience that.”
The firefighters were hosted in municipal and rural fire stations across the country. The delegation also met with their counterparts in the Israel Defense Forces — the Home Front Command’s Orange Firefighter Brigade. They observed emergency drills that included rescuing an injured victim from a building, rescuing victims from a crushed car and extinguishing a car fire. Tucsonan Shoham Ozeri, a corporal in the IDF’s search and rescue unit, met with them afterwards to share her story of moving back to Israel as a lone soldier. (Full disclosure: Shoham is my oldest daughter.)
Delegation members agreed that the most emotional moment was planting trees on Mount Carmel, the scene of Israel’s worst forest fire. Among the 44 victims of the 2010 fire was 16-year-old volunteer fire scout Elad Riven, who died battling the blaze. At a memorial for the victims, the firefighters met with his mother, Tzvia Riven. They were moved by her efforts to honor her son’s memory by promoting the value of “Adam l’adam adam” — “people to people are people.” In other words, always approach others with humanity and dignity. As they planted trees in memory of those who died in the fire, Lytle found it very symbolic. “I’ll be able to bring my kids there 20 years from now and we’ll have this tree that’s grown up.”
From a professional perspective, the firefighters are still processing the lessons learned from their Israeli counterparts and how those lessons can apply to first response services in Southern Arizona. Their findings will be instrumental in shaping future policy and training, says McKendrick.
The firefighters are available to speak to local groups about their trip. For more photos and the firefighters’ blog, go to www.facebook.com/greatertucsonfirefoundation.
Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson. She can be reached at [email protected].