Anonymous heroes

As firemen play an increasingly important role in the conflict in the North, their comrades in Jerusalem give our reporter an insider's look into their daily lives.

mask fireman 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mask fireman 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Half a dozen pairs of calloused hands are wringing. Their owners are poised on the edge of old couches, watching with incredulity as an apartment building in Haifa, hit directly by a rocket launched from southern Lebanon, crumbles in smoke and flame on the television screen in front of them. As reporters describe the terror in Haifa, the men of Jerusalem's largest fire station are gripped by the same emotions that have swept the country since the beginning of Hizbullah's onslaught - anger, pain, concern, fear. But when the TV cameras pan across the scene, showing big red fire trucks in front of the crippled building and several firefighters charging intrepidly into the wreckage, another sentiment becomes palpable in the room: Finally, they see us. "You never hear about firefighters," says one, eyes still glued to the screen. "We do work that can truly be called a holy mission - extracting bodies from bombed-out buses, peeling apart the twisted metal of crushed cars with our heavy equipment - but you never see us in the newspapers. Why? People would rather see Zaka guys, I guess, searching for victims‚ fingertips... They do holy work, too, don't get me wrong. But, listen, you have people caught in situations where, if we don't get them out of there, they're dead. And still, no one is even aware of us." "All you hear," adds another as three or four more nod their heads in agreement, "is, 'Magen David Adom this,' 'Magen David Adom that.' 'Magen David Adom rescued the wounded.' No one counts the firemen." On any given day, firefighters across the country rush to nearly 300 emergency calls. Half of those calls are fire-related; the other half are car accidents, terrorist attacks, distress calls from people stuck in elevators or high places and the like. Yet despite the volume and range of their activity, firefighters remain in the background of public consciousness as the army, police and emergency medical crews dominate the news. A civilian rescue crew in a country mesmerized by its security forces, carrying water hoses rather than rifles, they are Israel's anonymous heroes. Now, with the fighting in the North primarily a battle on the homefront, firefighters are beginning to catch the public's attention. "FOR EVERY Katyusha that falls in a built-up area, five more land in open areas. And 90 percent of those cause fires. With the winds and the heat, they're working very, very hard up North. You're talking about hundreds of fires," says Moshe Moscow, national spokesman for the Fire and Rescue Services. The rocket barrages have caused serious fires in Kiryat Shmona, Haifa and throughout the Galilee - spreading thin the manpower of the small fire departments scattered throughout the area. "They're working around the clock up there. They're not even getting home to see their families," Oren Shishitzky, firefighter and spokesman for the Petah Tikva Fire and Rescue Service, says of his colleagues in the North. "Everyone wants to help out, everyone." Firemen from the center of the country have headed north for 72-hour shifts to reinforce their counterparts there, about 50 at a time. When they return home, 50 more replace them. "They're working in small teams, so we go up to help them - I went to Hazor Haglilit with five guys from Petah Tikva, two from Herzliya, a few more from Rehovot. We help out wherever and however we're needed," he says. "Every siren brings another rocket strike, and each strike seems to start another fire. They come in bunches, too, so sometimes while treating one fire, more rockets land right nearby. We all know about the risks, and we know we won't see our families for a while. But we want to help the families up there, too - the ones in the bomb shelters, who are counting on us." Help is even coming from overseas: The Czech Republic has sent equipment worth about NIS 260,000, Moscow says. Local residents and factories are also pitching in any way they can. "Usually, the public doesn't really know how much we do for them," says Shishitzky, "but because of this they are starting to understand that firemen are on the scene, wherever they are needed. Like the saying goes, where everyone else runs away, we go in. Whether there are Katyushas, fires, trapped people, whatever - we're there." "Our profile is definitely rising now," Moscow says. "People now understand how important we are to the country - seeing that the army is the offensive arm and we are the defensive arm for the protection of the citizens. We're getting more applications to enter the service than ever, and we expect that to continue to increase. "Unfortunately," he says, "the more the war continues, the more people are getting to know about us." IN JERUSALEM, the crewmen of the Givat Mordechai fire station say they hope the public will begin to understand the Fire and Rescue Service's role in the country's defense. Children and foreigners, at least, do appreciate the firefighters. A group of kindergarteners skips excitedly into the station in the morning hours for a summertime treat. There is no shiny pole to slide down here, no Dalmation that serves as mascot, but the children are happy just to receive an up-close look at the firemen and their equipment. They stare in wonder as one of the youngest members of the station's 100-man team shows them the oxygen tanks, the door busters and the hydraulic metal "jaws" that are used to save lives almost every day. At the call of "Who wants to try on a firefighter's jacket?" half a dozen giggling children rush forward to be draped - no, smothered - in the flame retardant coat. Guy, an 18-year-old volunteer who has spent all his free time at the station for the past three years and hopes to pass the firefighting exam after his military service, smiles knowingly. "Every little kid wants to be a firefighter," he says. And every American tourist, it seems, wants to see Israeli firefighters. Ofer Sheffer, the station's training officer and public relations liaison, has shown so many around the station that he says he's lost count. When a handful of Americans shows up with some Israeli friends, a firefighter from Ft. Bragg in North Carolina in tow, Ofer polishes up his English and whisks them through the compound. The water trucks, the ladders, the hazardous materials mobile laboratory, the equipment - none of it is new to the American. "We have the same thing," he tells the group with pride. But at the sight of the hoses, the young man gives Ofer a "you've got to be kidding" look. The officer explains the different demands of Israeli firefighting. Since buildings here are made mostly of concrete, not wood, much less water is needed to put out fires. Also, authorities want to minimize water damage to buildings, and water is a scarce resource - so, in short, Israeli fire crews pump significantly less volumes of water than their American counterparts do. However, Ofer says with apparent gravity, they sleep much more. "Let me tell you what happened to our last recruit," he says. "When the recruit came to apply, the station commander immediately asked him whether he could sleep six hours straight, and the recruit answered that he could. 'Show me,' said the commander. Well, he went to sleep alright - for 12 hours straight! So the commander yelled, 'Get him out of here! He wants to be the commissioner!'" ALL JOKES ASIDE, it's quiet and slow at the station. The morning hours are dedicated to scrupulous equipment checks. Every piece of equipment on every truck is checked, even to the point of counting every tool in the toolbox on each truck. The most skilled mechanics among the dozen or so men on duty are even tuning the machines' huge engines. Others are unrolling all the hoses and checking them for leaks. It's slow work, and the professionals are happy to have a handful of 15-year-old volunteers help them do it. In the background, off-duty firefighters are building a women's section, an add-on to the synagogue they built for themselves inside the compound. Even though few of the men wear kippot, almost all of them pray in the synagogue regularly. It's the only fire station synagogue they know of in the whole country, they note with great pride, and they built it themselves from scratch. The men bring all their skills into the station, and cooking is one of the most important. Baruch, a 10-year veteran and one of the crew chiefs, first made a name for himself with his culinary talents. He and a few others with kitchen skills have spoiled the rest. "When I first got here," he says, "the guys used to eat tons of shakshouka - tons! Hey, firefighters' shakshouka is like nothing else in the world, you know. We still have it every Friday. But we've spiced things up... schnitzel, burekas, fish, whatever. In the morning, we figure out what we want to eat later, everyone chips in, and we get it done. And it's catering-level stuff sometimes, no kidding. A lot of guys eat better here than they do at home. They say, 'You've got to show my wife how to make this!'" The guys have decided they want to make a barbecue later, so one runs out to the store for supplies. Back in the garage, a few of the firefighters wonder aloud what their colleagues are going through up north, combatting the fires and mayhem that hundreds of Hizbullah's deadly rockets are causing. Benny, a mechanic in his 40s who is recognized as one of the station's top veterans, has just returned after five days of helping out in Nahariya and other cities up north. He doesn't say much about the actual firefighting; the men know perfectly well what it's like. The group shares not only camaraderie but also a strong sense of being regular, working guys, so it's the conditions that concern them more. "Our situation in Jerusalem is pretty good, I have to say; we have good equipment and we get paid on time. Up north, however, things are not so good," Benny says. "I know firefighters up north who haven't received a paycheck in four months - and despite that, they are really fighting up there right now. There's no money for salaries, or for more modern vehicles, either. They really feel it in some stations." "Hey, I want to help them out," says one of the guys. He's not on duty but, like a lot of the men here, spends much of his free time at the station anyway. "How can I get up there?" he asks. THE DAY is dragging on, and Sharon feels the need to explain: "Right now it's quiet. But you never know when you'll get an alarm." The alarm comes, sure enough, as Sharon is halfway through chopping onions for lunch. Without hesitating, he drops the knife and heads straight for Engine 33, followed closely by Shimon, Shmulik and two volunteers. In only seconds, the crew is barreling toward the Talpiot industrial area to put out a fire in a pile of construction waste right next to a large furniture factory. The fire is small, and in only a few minutes the crew is packing up the truck and getting ready to leave. Suddenly Shimon calls out, "Get in the truck, hurry! There's a major event at the municipality!" Sharon, who only minutes ago was joking with the volunteers, has become all business. In a flash he rips the back panel from his seat, revealing an oxygen tank which he straps deftly across his back, anticipating a roaring blaze in the city center. Shmulik maneuvers the huge truck through the constricted traffic, Shimon not so much operating the siren as holding it open for an angry scream. "Get out of the way, morons!" he yells. As the truck pulls up to the scene, which has been marked off by police, the firefighters search in vain for the horrendous fire that has been promised them over the radio. It's nowhere to be found. A would-be suicide bomber has been caught across from the Old City, turning a terrible tragedy into a mere traffic annoyance. Engine 33 heads back to Givat Mordechai. "Firefighters can't afford to stand around and talk on their cell phones in front of the cameras," says station commander Moshe Suissa. "As soon as they finish their work, they have to immediately pack up all their equipment and get back to the station - because they have to be ready to go again immediately, in case another incident occurs." This is the routine. The men work in 24-hour shifts, on constant alert for fires and bombings alike. "A lot of guys who come in here have no idea what they're in for," says Baruch, who has volunteered to pull a double (48-hour) shift because of the strain on the department. "This job is tough, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. Experience is everything in firefighting, and Jerusalem has tons of experience. You can see that guys from other areas who have been firefighters for years, they don't have as much actual experience as a firefighter gets in Jerusalem in only one or two years." At first, the action is exciting, the adrenaline addictive. But heroism takes a back seat to professionalism. "Most of the firefighters here are married, settled down," Baruch continues. "When you come to be a firefighter, you're not a kid, you're in a different phase of life. Guys who come in after the army with all kinds of childish ideas, they grow up real fast. When you go to the scene of a car accident, you see how a person can lose everything in a second. You start to understand what the meaning of life is." The sobering visions that a fireman encounters and the stress of the job take their toll. "At first, you talk about everything. When you get home, you tell your wife about everything, to let off steam. Then you start to realize that it's affecting your home life. So you keep all those images inside... You work your shift, and when the shift is over, you flip a switch and shut it out of your mind... but it builds up. "Today, we are starting to have psychologists and counselors help us learn how to deal with it. For some of those old-timers, you know, it's not easy to adjust. It used to be that, if you went to a psychologist, they said you were crazy. Today, whoever doesn't get help is crazy! They say, 'What are you nuts? Why don't you go talk it out?' I know a guy who was at a bombing and couldn't eat for two days afterward." (Suissa says that some of his men, having gotten the smell of burnt flesh in their nostrils, have stopped eating meat altogether.) "But," Baruch says, "this job provides so much satisfaction, in the feeling that you're helping people. It fills you up, all the time." He pauses to look around - at his comrades who are sanding the walls in the synagogue, at others who are preparing lunch for the guys who are coming back from a call, at the fellow arranging to make his way up north - and says, knowingly, "Everyone here feels it."