Israel’s intelligence community told a cohort of volunteer first responders that it is most concerned about a new war with Syria, says Jay Korza, a sergeant with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. If that threat materializes, Korza will be there to help.
Korza traveled to Israel this summer to take part in the Emergency Volunteers Project, which trains American firefighters and first responders to assist during a national emergency. Since its founding, the program has trained 1,000 emergency workers, including 39 American firefighters — several from Southern Arizona — deployed to Israel during 2016’s operation “Water and Fire.”
Korza, 44, is a 17-year veteran with the sheriff’s department. For the last decade, he has been a member of the Pima Regional SWAT team, where one of his duties is serving as a Tactical EMS medic. He also teaches paramedic training courses for Pima Community College’s Paramedic Associate of Applied Science program.
He heard about the EVP initiative through a coworker, and he and his wife decided to check out an informational seminar last year hosted by the Tucson Jewish Community Center.
He arrived in Tel Aviv on June 1, spending his first three days touring the country. Oshrat Barel, director of Tucson’s Weintraub Israel Center, arranged free guided tours for Korza via the Israel Experience.
The first group of local volunteer firefighters shipped off to Israel in October 2013, says Mike McKendrick, chair of the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation. The idea to start a Southern Arizona-Israel first responder partnership began as a casual conversation between Patty Vallance, a fire foundation and Jewish community volunteer, and a Tucson Fire Department captain.
In September 2005, long before the EVP program launched, Chris Rogers, deputy and bomb squad technician with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, traveled to Israel and was embedded with with the Tel Aviv district bomb squad. The two-week training program was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Weintraub Israel Center.
Pima County is actually larger than Israel, says McKendrick, which helps put emergency response techniques in perspective for participants in the EVP program. Furthering professional development is a lifelong pursuit for first responders, and having the opportunity to do so on an international level is invaluable, he says.
“Strengthening the bond between southern Arizona and Israel, through programs that cultivate both professional and personal relationships is vital in support, understanding and outreach,” says McKendrick, who thinks every community should consider launching this type of partnership.
Although Korza was part of the EVP medical team, the fire foundation helped finance some of his trip through the Firefighters Beyond Borders Fund, says McKendrick.
Korza joined the Navy at age 18, where he trained as a hospital corpsman. A medic in the military receives an advanced level of training, he says, and has more freedoms and duties than a civilian paramedic.
When his deployment ended, Korza knew he had a few options: reenlist and continue as a corpsman, dedicate himself to school and become a doctor, or pursue a career in law enforcement. Although he chose the latter, Korza says, providing patient care has remained a passion.
During his 10-day EVP training, Korza stayed in Ashkelon, which is just north of the Gaza Strip. When the last EVP medical team was deployed to Israel, the unit was based out of Barzilai University Medical Center in Ashkelon, so future cohorts could also be stationed there, he says.
The training program consisted of multiple informational tours of various sites throughout the country, providing context for where volunteers may be stationed during a deployment, what types of emergencies they could be called for and the regional dynamics. Israel is located along the Great Rift Valley, so EVP volunteers could be deployed after an earthquake.
Being in law enforcement is starkly different from being a paramedic, says Korza. As a peace officer your job is to keep criminals at bay, but as a first responder the results are instantaneous, whether you’re saving a life or delivering a baby, he explains, adding that is the work he misses.
If Korza is ever deployed by EVP, he’ll be able to perform the same level of patient care he enjoyed as a corpsman, a fact that ultimately sold him on the program. Although Korza’s wife does not want him entering a war zone, he may utilize his negotiating skills in hopes of working alongside the Israel Defense Forces.
“If an IDF ambulance shows up at the hospital, I’m probably going to be on it when they go back out,” Korza says with a laugh.
But his motivations are not based on thrill-seeking, he says; he’d be guided by the goal of helping a country under siege and saving lives. “Just to be able to help and to provide that medical care to a level that might be commensurate with what I did in the military — that chance is what’s interesting to me, and that’s why I wanted to go.”
Korza says he’s not a religious person, or interested in politics, but he feels Israel is mistreated on the world stage and misrepresented in the media. If Israel is a nation founded on hate or segregation, why are Muslims from neighboring countries seeking and receiving quality healthcare in Ashkelon, Korza asks rhetorically.
Since Korza toured Israel before the training began, he asked to spend his last day working in Ashkelon.
During his eight-hour shift, Korza shadowed a handful of emergency room doctors at Barzilai medical, jumping in to help anyone he could. The medicines used for typical treatments are universal, as he expected.
While he doesn’t speak Hebrew or Arabic, Korza says, he didn’t have much trouble communicating with patients, using the “thumbs-up” to get approval for care from people. “We muddled through it; it wasn’t a big deal.”
One patient being treated for symptoms brought on by a miscarriage, refused care from Korza because he was an American, which didn’t faze him. But the doctor he was working with began to argue with the woman, explaining he was a volunteer and she must reconsider. Korza pleaded with the doctor to stop arguing with this patient, which he describes as an amusing cultural difference between the United States and Israel. “That’s not the way it works in America, if a patient says no, it’s no,” he says.
He observed Muslims who appeared reluctant to be treated by Jewish doctors, and vice versa, but providing the best treatment possible always takes precedence.
“When we have patients, we have patients and it doesn’t matter who they are,” says Korza. “Once you’re my patient, everything else goes out the window. You’re my patient, and that’s my priority.”
Taking part in the EVP program reaffirmed what Korza understands about the medical profession: dividing lines dissolve when it comes to patient care. “We’re here for you and it doesn’t matter how you feel about us, we’re going to treat you — that’s how we are, and that’s how we should be.”