“When we train for mass casualty incidents, we know that the blood isn’t real and when the training is over, everyone is going to stand up and walk away. How does Israel deal with real mass casualty incidents that can happen every day?” That question by Tucson Fire Department Captain Richard Johnson launched Firefighters Beyond Borders and sent seven local firefighters from five agencies to Israel in 2013 to work with their professional counterparts. The conversation continued with a reciprocal delegation of four high ranking Israeli first responders from fire, medical, civilian and incident command, who traveled to Tucson last month for 10 days of intensive training and consultation with hundreds of regional first responders and emergency experts.
Selected by the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs and the Office of the Consul General in Los Angeles, each of the four is an expert in developing community preparedness and emergency response policies on a national level. But they also brought the ruach (spirit) of their nation with them. They built not just professional relationships, but personal and community relationships, bridges across and beyond borders.
Avi Borger, chief of policy for the National Emergency Management Authority and head of the delegation, summed it up for the AJP: “We held here two visits. One was a professional visit with all the fire departments and emergency responders. The second was an emotional visit with the Jewish community. The emotional got deep into my heart. The professional went directly to my brain. I am going back home with a lot of ideas and with great satisfaction from both aspects.”
Two community events welcomed the delegates on their first day: lunch and briefings with the boards and leadership of the Jewish community, hosted by Rabbi Robert Eisen at Congregation Anshei Israel; and a community-wide forum hosted by Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, and Todd Rockoff, president and CEO of the Tucson Jewish Community Center, attended by nearly 200 people at the J.
Yaki Lopez, consul for political affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, opened the forum with an overview of the current wave of terror attacks in Israel. “This is a direct result of what we’ve been witnessing for many years now, and we’ve been warning against it. We’ve seen institutionalized incitement by the Palestinian Authority for many years, and this has trickled down into the education system. Kids, instead of learning about math, humanities, social studies, peace, they’re learning about hatred, about how to kill Jews.
“We feel that the best way to move forward is to first of all put a stop to the terrorism,” he said, adding that terrorism needs to be addressed the same way, whether it takes place on the streets of Jerusalem, Paris, New York or Boston.
“Terrorism knows no borders and it is up to the entire free world to fight it together. Despite some of the rhetoric and things that we read in the media the last few months, mainly surrounding the Iran agreement, relations between the United States and Israel are as strong as they’ve ever been,” said Lopez, noting that while our countries have had disagreements on strategic issues in the past and will again, our shared basic values “will forever bound us together.”
Borger explained that Israel established NEMA in 2007 in response to a crisis during the Second Lebanon War, when people in northern Israel spent several days in shelters without food, water and access to medical services. “One of the lessons of the Second Lebanon War was to establish an organization to be a guiding hand that would instruct government ministries and local authorities how to act in emergencies.” Borger crafts those emergency policies, coordinates the country’s response, commands the management center and reports directly to the Ministry of Defense.
Brig. Gen. Shmulik Friedman, chief of operations for Israel Fire and Rescue Authority, reminded the audience of the Mount Carmel forest fire in 2010, which killed 44 people, including three firefighters, in a devastating series of arson-set fires. Shocked and galvanized, Israel responded to improve fire services: 24 municipal and regional fire departments were consolidated to create a centralized national Fire and Rescue Authority under the Ministry of Public Security. Before the Carmel fire, Israel had only 1,100 firefighters to serve the entire country and its population of 8.5 million; the goal is to train and equip nearly 2,000 by the end of 2016, although 10,000 are required to meet Israel’s needs, according to a study by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
Guy Caspi spoke about Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency rescue service, established in 1930 as a volunteer organization. Caspi is the chief mass casualty incident instructor and director of hazmat, exercises and operational training for the 18,000 volunteers and 2,000 staff who work at MDA’s 127 ambulance posts around the country, responding to all levels of emergency, from daily incidents to mass disaster.
“In the Six Day War, our enemies understood that the IDF is too strong and they probably won’t be able to win in a fight. So what they are doing now is trying to hit our citizens,” said Maj. Sivan Inbar, head of population training at the Home Front Command Urban Search and Rescue School. HFC is a division of the Israel Defense Forces focusing on domestic search and rescue, attacks on the civilian population and protection during natural and man-made dangers. The expanding range and accuracy of missiles from Gaza increases the threat, she said, emphasizing the importance of building resilience. “Our main target is to protect our civilians from any kind of risk.”
The following day, the delegates headed a professionals’ conference for the command staff of local first responders, with a keynote address by Dr. Richard H. Carmona, president of the Canyon Ranch Institute and former surgeon general of the United States.
Biologic exposures, infectious disease, hazardous materials decontamination, firefighter health and safety, active shooter scenarios, wildfire and wildland response, high rise attack and cultural and gender awareness were just some of dozens of topics covered over the next eight days.
The group spent time with Tucson-area and Phoenix fire departments, participating in demonstrations at four public safety training centers. Close to a dozen other meetings ranged from the Pima County Office of Emergency Management Command Center to Raytheon Missile Systems, from the Union Pacific Railroad to Customs and Border Patrol.
Most days began with a working breakfast at 6 a.m. and didn’t end until after 8 p.m. But just as the 2013 delegation incorporated the professional, the religious and the secular, the itinerary gave these delegates time to connect with our Jewish community through meals or services at Congregations Anshei Israel, Bet Shalom and Or Chadash, Temple Emanu-El and the Jewish History Museum, plus an interview for Rabbi Samuel Cohon’s “Too Jewish” radio talk show.
The AJP caught up with the delegates toward the end of their stay and asked what they found most significant.
“What we saw in Phoenix and in Tucson was incredible for us,” said Friedman. “I’ll tell the fire commissioner that we should continue the cooperation. There are many things we can learn from you and in many aspects, we have experience that you don’t have. But the biggest take away for me is not just the firefighting stuff. The best thing for me was the hospitality of everybody — the Jews, the non-Jews, the firefighters, the EMS. Everybody was so nice and opened all the doors for us.”
Caspi added, “The bonding between the Jews and the non-Jews here with the purpose of Firefighters Beyond Borders is amazing. It’s because of people with passion, people with mission. In the EMS arena, we are following the American Heart Association protocols and I saw some very interesting modifications of the protocols in the Northwest, which is only done here. I’m pretty sure that the circumstances and the atmosphere that was built around this visit allowed us and allowed them to ask questions that on other occasions I’m not sure would be asked.”
Lt. Col. Ariel Blitz, Home Front Command liaison officer at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., who joined the group for the last half of the trip, said, “I’ve never seen this kind of hospitality in my two years here (in the United States). I escorted high rank generals, and have never seen anything like that. We had a chance to have such deep and good discussions from both sides. We shared the things that we need to improve in Israel and maybe that will help our colleagues here.”
Esther Sherberg, trustee for the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation and longtime Jewish community volunteer added, “This is the strongest example of Tucson-Israel bonding that I have experienced in my years of working to bring us all closer together. It goes beyond our Jewish community and shows there are no borders, only unity, between people who serve. This is a program that must continue.”
Firefighters Beyond Borders is a program of the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation in partnership with the Weintraub Israel Center and the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.
Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a feature writer and editor living in Tucson. She can be reached at [email protected].