Firefighting, the Israeli Way

Firefighters from Maryland and Virginia take part  in training for the Emergency Volunteers Project, an Israeli not-for-profit organization that deploys American firefighters and medical personnel to back up Israeli first responders during times of conflict. (All photos by Marc Shapiro)
Firefighters from Maryland and Virginia take part in training for the Emergency Volunteers Project, an Israeli not-for-profit organization that deploys American firefighters and medical personnel to back up Israeli first responders during times of conflict. (All photos by Marc Shapiro)

A dozen firefighters had to rethink their longstanding approaches to structural fires as they learned how the Israelis do it. They were told to multitask and enter a mock structure fire alone — both atypical ideas to American firefighters.

Those were two of the biggest differences firefighters learned during their two-day training last week for the Emergency Volunteers Project (EVP), a not-for-profit Israeli organization that deploys emergency service workers to back up first responders in Israel during times of conflict. In the U.S., firefighters often have one particular job at a scene and enter buildings in pairs, whereas in Israel, where crews are typically smaller, firefighters learn to be their own one-man crew.

“Think outside the box,” Yoni Blitz, a sergeant with the fire department in Israel’s Sharon region, told the firefighters. “There’s only two of you, three tops.”

He and two other Israeli firefighters helped train the American firefighters, who were from Baltimore County — including the Chestnut Ridge Volunteer Fire Company, the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company and the Owings Mills Volunteer Fire Company — Prince George’s County, Montgomery County and Fairfax County, Va., so that they could be deployed to Israel at the request of the Israeli government.

During extended conflicts, such as the recent Operation Protective Edge, Israeli firefighters and medics in the reserves are called out to the fields, leaving fire stations and hospitals understaffed. When the Israeli government asks, EVP sends seasoned firefighters and medical personnel at nearly a moment’s notice to help fill in that gap. The organization has trained 500 volunteers since 2010.

“It’s helping out my fellow brothers,” said Ken McGee, a master technician at Fairfax County Fire and Rescue who is not Jewish. “It’s that fraternity; it doesn’t matter color, culture or country.”

Two local volunteers, EMS Lt. Scott Weiner of Chestnut Ridge and First Engine Lt. Scott Goldstein of Pikesville, spent a week at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon during Operation Protective Edge on a weeklong EVP medical mission. They were also joined by two members of Hatzalah of Baltimore, a Silver Spring paramedic and a nurse from Texas. Goldstein and Weiner are now EVP’s Baltimore-D.C. training coordinators and work to get more of their colleagues involved in the organization.

“Here in our area, we have a wealth of experience and knowledge and people who are compassionate and caring and want to help,” Weiner said. “It’s just a natural extension of my wanting to go.”

So on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 28 and 29, new recruits learned about EVP, terrorism and security threats facing Israel and operational procedures, and they familiarized themselves with Israeli fire equipment and ran firefighting drills. While there were 12 who completed the training, others expressed great interest. A Tuesday night lecture on mass casualty response in Israel attracted about 75 people to the Chestnut Ridge fire station and left the Americans feeling validated.

“It reinforced what we do here in America and the way we train. Even though we don’t see these types of incidents very often, the way we train for mass casualty is the way they train for mass casualty,” Goldstein said. “It’s very nice to see that the stuff we’re doing here actually works.”

Photos by Marc Shapiro

However, their differences played a crucial role the second day of training, when they performed a structure fire simulation. Because they were using an old fire training facility that was no longer active and therefore couldn’t set a real fire, the building was filled with smoke using fog machines. Although the heat typical of structure fires wasn’t there, the lack of visibility and urgency was.

Firefighters entered the ground floor, which was hazy to the point they couldn’t even see their own hands, and had to run hoses up to the next two floors and get the smoke out of the building. According to Israeli tactics, firefighters would enter the building by themselves or go to another floor by themselves and have multiple jobs to do because of smaller crews. In the U.S., firefighters enter structure fires in pairs.

“Here, you usually have your own part. In Israel, you do everything,” said Ken Kleiman, a captain in the Netanya fire department. “It’s like the ‘MacGyver’ kind of thing.”

Because most buildings in Israel are made out of concrete, firefighters can enter alone without having to worry about the structure collapsing, a luxury not afforded most Americans combatting fires here. But concrete buildings pose additional challenges.

“It tends to reserve the heat, so the minute you go inside, it’s like an oven,” said Noam Ozeri, a firefighter from Herzliya north of Tel Aviv. “The water turns to steam.”

Reflecting on the two days of training, Goldstein was confident in future EVP missions.

“I think we have a much better perspective on the Israeli tactics of structural firefighting, and I think our integration into their crew will go a lot more seamlessly,” he said. “We were able to split folks up into crews they hadn’t worked with, and people fell into line like they’d been working together for years.”

For the Americans, getting involved with EVP is about more than fighting fires.

“When we need help in Pikesville, we have it all around us. Israel doesn’t have that,” said Jonathan Polirer, a firefighter and EMT. “Israel is the one place that’s been there for us as a people and always will be.”

At the end of Wednesday’s training, the Israelis told the Americans they are welcome at their fire stations and homes anytime.

“To know that there are people who are with us … it’s good to know we have good friends and brothers,” Kleiman said.

Added Blitz, “I hope they wouldn’t need our help, but if they do, we’ll be here.”

There will additional trainings in early 2015, and some EVP volunteers may go to Israel next year to train at Israeli fire academies as well.

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