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Local Firefighter Who Witnessed Hamas Devastation Eager to Help Israel

Jeff Hamblen in body armor, preparing to visit Hamas attack sites in Israel. Courtesy: Jeff Hamblen

Capt. Jeff Hamblen of Northwest Fire recently signed up to train with Israel’s Emergency Volunteer Project. He expected to help his Israeli counterparts put out fires. He didn’t expect to be flying into a country at war.

Hamblen’s travel date was Oct. 7, 2023, the day Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing 1,200 people, taking 240 men, women, and children hostage, and starting a war that is still being fought.

As he was traveling, he had access to the news. Friends and family members reached out, urging him to change his plans. But Hamblen never considered canceling his trip, which was sponsored by the Greater Tucson Firefighters Foundation Firefighters Beyond Borders project, which began 10 years ago.

“I’d signed up for the program to go help them in their time of need,” he says. “And although this was scheduled just to be a training, I couldn’t find it in myself to turn around and not go help them. I put on a uniform every day to go help people in need.”

A paramedic fire captain for almost 18 years, Hamblen’s varied experiences have included search and rescue; special operations, such as swift water rescue; and working with a regional SWAT team as a tactical medic.

Hamblen’s flight to Israel was canceled, but he managed to get on a flight to Turkey.

“I’ll never forget being in the airport in Istanbul,” he says. “You’d think that people run away from war zones, but it was amazing to see the amount of Israelis that were just trying to get home, to be there with their families, to support their country.”

He knew he was doing the right thing by continuing to Israel, but he stepped back and let others get on a flight before him.

Once he reached Israel, his EVP contact took him to the Nof Hagalil fire station outside of Nazareth, in the north.

Tensions were high. Five Israeli firefighters had been killed on the morning of the attack while commuting to work in the Gaza border area, and a fire chief had lost his son, who was in the Israel Defense Forces.

Hamblen and two other American firefighters training with EVP “tried to blend in and support them with daily operations,” he says, assisting with fires and other calls for service, such as elevator rescues. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, Israeli firefighters do not handle medical calls.

The Americans also toured other regional fire stations and Hamblen shared his experience with hazardous materials and technical rescue.

Jeff Hamblen, right, with an Israeli firefighter from the Nof Hagalil fire station. Courtesy: Jeff Hamblen

Otherwise, the Americans sheltered in the Nof Hagalil station for eight days, he said. Due to personnel reporting for IDF reserve duty, the fire service changed its schedule from three shifts to two, with firefighters working 24 hours on and 24 hours off.

“They were completely capable without me being there. They were proud to have us there — they were very happy to have that small representation of American firefighters,” Hamblen says.

After eight days in the north, he was sent to the Israel Fire Authority Training Center in Tel Aviv.

One of his hosts invited him to visit the scenes of the Oct. 7 attack, along with Fire Commissioner Eyal Caspi and other command staff.

“I didn’t realize it was going to be such an experience,” Hamblen says.

They were outfitted with body armor before heading in a convoy toward the attack sites, which included two kibbutzim, Nir Oz and Kisufim, and the Supernova music festival site.

“We’re passing tanks and troops; we’re going through empty highways but you look out in the field and there’s full battalions of troops staging and getting ready. It was kind of surreal,” he says.

Outside an Israeli house Hamas set on fire during the Oct. 7 attack. Photo: Jeff Hamblen

Walking through the kibbutz neighborhoods, he saw yards with children’s toys “and then bullet holes throughout all the buildings, and buildings burned out,” he says.

The group’s briefings were interrupted several times by sirens, forcing them to shelter inside the abandoned homes’ safe rooms while rockets fell nearby.

The safe rooms were usually children’s rooms. As a father of two, Hamblen felt a deep personal connection.

“You could see the signs of murder and death and destruction, inside these regular homes,” he says. “The devastation was beyond anything I’ve seen in my career.”

As they drove back to Tel Aviv amid more rocket attacks, Caspi asked Hamblen, the first U.S. civilian to visit the sites, to share what he’d seen, “because people need to know what happened here.” Hamblen, who left Israel the next day, created a PowerPoint presentation that he has shown to th board of the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation.

Hamblen is ready to go back to Israel anytime.

“The intent was to train to be able to help them, whenever,” he says. “After my experience, there’s nothing more that I want to do than get back and support them.”

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