Five Southern Arizona firefighters recently spent nine days in Israel training and battling blazes with fire crews in Jerusalem and Petach Tikvah. As the latest Firefighters Beyond Borders delegation, they were the first personnel from Arizona to participate in the Emergency Volunteer Project, a program that trains first-responders to provide support for Israel in the event of war, natural or manmade disasters.
With no time for jet lag, the delegates hit the ground running.
“It was quite an adventure. … They didn’t give us enough time to be tired. They picked us up at 4 at the airport and took us to the fire station in Petach Tikvah and put us to work right away,” says Mount Lemmon Fire District Chief Randy Ogden, who headed the delegation. “They drilled us to make sure we knew how to fight fire. They put us laying hose lines and connecting them. We did that until about 9:30 and then we ate dinner and then we started running calls.”
After that initial training, three of the firefighters went to the central fire station in Jerusalem, while two stayed in Petach Tikvah with another EVP trainee from Maine.
The Jerusalem crew had what amounted to an initiation by fire, literally. “We pulled up to the station and there were a couple guys standing outside. I got out to introduce myself and Arik, one of the firefighters who was assigned to us, came running back out and said, ‘Let’s go. We’ve got a big fire.’ So we jumped into the truck and there was an apartment building on fire, with people trapped inside,” says Nogales Fire Department Captain Pete Ashcraft.
“We get there and there are hundreds of people outside. There are onlookers and police and then you have the fire departments. We didn’t know who was who. It was a little overwhelming to the senses, but that’s what we’re trained to deal with, so you just push that out of your head and get to work,” says Jeremy Carillo, a firefighter with the Rio Rico Medical & Fire District. “We had not been there long enough to even be trained on their breathing apparatus. We got a crash course and figured it out ourselves. We’re firefighters, so that’s our job to adapt and improve quickly. So when the guys would come out, we’d yank the bottles out of their harness and slap in a new one and send them back to work. We got very organized very quickly, which they appreciated. Some of those guys went in three or four times, at least.”
The fire was in an eight-story apartment building and 26 people were trapped inside. Carillo says it started in a storage area underground and the biggest threat to the residents was smoke inhalation. Like most of the buildings in Israel, this one was constructed of concrete, so there wasn’t any concern about the building collapsing, like there would be in the United States. But the emphasis was still on getting everyone out to safety and putting out the fire.
“When the ladder truck came down, there was a set of triplets with a mom and grandma. Grandma was not feeling so well, so she handed me one of the kids, a baby, and he just cuddled up to me. I helped them walk the grandma to a city bus that was turned into a mobile treat-and-release station,” says Marcela Donovan Hammond, a firefighter and arson investigator with the Nogales Fire Department. Hammond was the first female firefighter from the United States to participate in EVP, and the only woman at her station in Jerusalem. She says that’s a situation she’s used to, since she was the first female firefighter in her department in Nogales.
The crew in Petach Tikvah was busy as well. “They put us to work,” says Ogden. “I was surprised. They were much more willing to let us do things and actually get involved; put airpacks on and actually fight fire. Originally I thought they would kind of entertain and tolerate us, but it went way beyond that. They really accepted us and put us to work.”
On Sept. 20, the group had the privilege of observing a national drill – when the entire country participates in an emergency drill, orchestrated by the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command. They went to Haifa, where they witnessed a simulated response to a missile attack on the oil refinery. For some, it was the first time they’d ever heard the warning siren of a missile attack.
During the drill, they had a unique opportunity to tour the Magen David Adom (Israel’s emergency medical services unit) mobile command post, hosted by Guy Caspi, MDA’s chief mass casualty incident instructor and director of hazmat, exercises and operational training, who was in Southern Arizona with the Israeli Firefighters Beyond Borders delegation last fall. “It was leaps and bounds above anything we have here,” says Ashcraft. While talking with one of the men who designed it, Ashcraft found out that he had also helped design the cameras and surveillance equipment along the Arizona-Mexico border.
When asked what impressed them the most, every single delegate mentioned the warmth and camaraderie of the Israeli firefighters. “They were so happy to have us there, so hospitable. I always felt at home,” says Tucson Fire Captain Bruce Avram, who was stationed in Petach Tikvah with Ogden. “I never felt anything but accepted.”
The hospitality extended beyond the fire station, as people who saw them in uniform out on the streets were impressed and grateful that they had traveled from the other side of the world to volunteer their time. They frequently received offers for a warm meal and a place to stay from total strangers.
Although there were some noticeable differences in equipment and protocol, all of the volunteers said they were primarily struck by the similarities between the Israel Fire and Rescue Authority and their own departments here in Arizona. “A fire station is a fire station. We could have picked up that fire station with those guys and put it anywhere in the world and it would have been a fire station. It’s a unique breed of individual that’s in the fire service. It seems like it’s the same throughout the world. They are dedicated professionals, really want to do a good job and are there because they care about people,” says Ogden.
“The opportunity to introduce our folks to the EVP experience has meant our firefighters were given the chance to become certified as Israeli firefighters – active duty, boots on the ground, nozzle in hand, alongside their professional counterparts and, now, lifelong friends,” says Mike McKendrick, chair of the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation. “The reciprocal delegations have brought much to our region, strengthening training and emergency response. Their ability and willingness to share that gained expertise has had an impact that has rippled across the first responder community both here and in Israel. We look forward to many more opportunities to bring Tucson and Israel closer in partnership through the foundation’s Firefighters Beyond Borders initiative.”
Ultimately, did their EVP training accomplish its mission? If called on to help Israel during an emergency, would they go back? Without hesitation, every one of five delegates said yes.
“I can’t wait to go back. I loved Jerusalem. I loved the country. I didn’t expect it to affect me as much as it did. … They’ve got a friend for life in me,” says Carillo.
Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a writer and editor in Tucson.