US firefighters join Israeli brothers to battle blazes

‘It’s not about politics, it’s not about religion – it’s about firefighting, brotherhood, saving lives’

November 28, 2016 03:54
4 minute read.
American firefighters

SOME of the 40 veteran US firefighters who are assisting their Israeli counterparts pose for a photo yesterday at a downtown Jerusalem fire station.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

As fires engulfed large swaths of the country over the past week, 40 veteran US firefighters refused to watch the tragedy unfold from afar.

Instead, they boarded planes from as far away as Los Angeles and Dallas and traveled for up to 20 hours, including layovers, to fight alongside their brothers in arms.

The men, ranging in age from 30 to 60, are part of the Emergency Volunteer Project, launched by Israel in 2009 to train and work with US firefighters and other emergency personnel during dire circumstances.

Since then, Israeli rescue workers have trained over 900 US firefighters, EVP spokesman Eitan Charnoff said on Sunday night, at a downtown Jerusalem fire station where the 40 men will sleep and be based.
The US Supertanker taking off

“The Emergency Volunteer Project is a nonprofit organization that understands that however expert our emergency services are, they’re only so big, and in large-scale emergencies we need additional manpower,” Charnoff said. “So the EVP has set out to train in advance American rescue personnel to specifically deploy to Israel, and know how to work here during emergencies.”

Working in coordination with Fire Services, IDF Home Front Command, and the Health and Public Security ministries, the US volunteers, who began arriving Saturday night, have trained with Israeli firefighters in the country on two occasions.

Since its inception, Charnoff said EVP has previously deployed US firefighters and paramedics during Operation Protective Edge to respond to thousands of rocket attacks, although the organization was not fully operational during the Mount Carmel forest fire in 2010.

Several of those 40 volunteers, who will remain in the country for one week, pulled into the station in a fire truck with their Israeli counterparts after responding to an area call.

Donning a full Israeli uniform, Rick Nessner, a 32-year veteran of the Dallas Fire Department, said he has been a member of EVP since 2010.

“I have been over here four times now, and this is our second deployment,” Nessner said, noting he was last deployed during the Gaza war in 2014. “The other two times I was here were for training.”

One of 15 volunteers from the Dallas area, Nessner said he was drawn to the program because firefighting knows no borders.

“It’s pretty simple for me: It’s firefighting,” he said. “Back home, if another city calls for help, it’s called ‘mutual aid,’ and we go help them. There is no question; you just do it. This isn’t any different for me. If Israeli firefighters need some help, we come out and help them.”

Nessner added: “It’s not about politics, it’s not about religion – it’s about firefighting, brotherhood, and saving lives.”

While he praised Israeli firefighters as exceptional, he noted that they remain understaffed.

“The firefighters here are great,” he said. “They know what they’re doing, but there’s just not enough of them, and when a big event like this happens they just get overwhelmed. Tactics are a little different here than in the US, but that stems from the US having more firefighters. Here in Israel, you may have two guys show up for a large fire, whereas in America you’d have 20 guys in five trucks showing up in minutes.”

Ben Arnold, 32, who arrived on Sunday afternoon from Los Angeles, where he has worked at the city’s fire department for 10 years, said he has volunteered for EVP for six years.

Like Nessner, this is Arnold’s second deployment, apart from two extensive EVP training sessions in the country.

“We were put on standby two days ago, and in less than 24 hours we were told we were going to fly out,” he said. “Within four hours, we had our tickets, said goodbye to our families, and got on the plane.”

Asked why it is important to him to travel such a great distance to aid Israeli firefighters, whom he described as “outstanding,” Arnold cited “the brotherhood of the firefighters.”

“I’ve worked with these guys before, and consider them family, and if there is anything I can do to help Israel and my fellow firefighters, I am willing and love to do it,” he said.

Israeli firefighter Shiran Luzon, 36, who has served for five years – and described this week’s fires as unprecedented – has fought numerous blazes since Tuesday. He said he is grateful for the comradery and indispensable aid.

“I think they are the greatest,” said Luzon of the US volunteers. “We count on them and we rely on them, and treat them like our brothers. And I know that if they ever needed help, I would go help them also.”

In the meantime, Luzon said of the current crisis: “I told one of my friends who was with me in Nataf on Friday: ‘If we didn’t see hell until now, we just saw it.’”

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