USA/ISRAEL – Tucson Firefighters Beyond Borders completed its third mission to Israel last month under an unexpected hail of missiles. That only added a new dimension to the multi-faceted, cross-cultural and cross-technology educational exchanges that began in 2013, according to the six participants.
The delegation left Tucson on Nov. 6, spending 10 days in Israel. Besides visiting historical and spiritual sites, the group focused on the mission’s purpose: to share and participate in dialogue with Israeli counterparts on the evolving threats of wildland and urban firefighting.
Israel’s military says more than 400 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza on Nov. 12 and 13. “The rocket attacks and resiliency of the Israeli people was incredible to witness,” says Kris Blume, Tucson Fire Department battalion chief and head of the 2018 delegation. “As dramatic and tragic as the rocket attacks in the southern part of the region were, we as a group of firefighters reflected on the delegation’s mission, vision, and values.” The attacked areas around Ashkelon became an impromptu focus of the delegation’s visit.
Traveling with Blume on the mission were other Tucson area fire professionals, many who began their careers in wildland fire. E.A. “Ted” Geare III is a retired TFD assistant fire chief and founding trustee of Firefighters Beyond Borders, a program of the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation. TFD Capt. Eliot Anderson and engineer K. Paul Maxwell, Northwest Fire District Wildland Coordinator Scott Peru, and Golder Ranch Fire District Capt. Steve Lunde rounded out the delegation.
Lunde describes the topography and fuel models of Israel as very similar to that of Arizona and California. “The southern part of Israel reminded me more of the majority of Arizona with its desert landscape, and the Northern part near Haifa really reminded me of some of the coastal parts of California.”
“Israel’s nationalized service delivery model is relatively new,” says Geare. Israel nationalized the fire service following a devastating Mount Carmel fire near Haifa in 2010 that claimed 44 lives and burned 12,000 acres. “While growing, it is faced with limited staffing across the entire country, which can present challenges itself. Then, to deliver service in an environment with so many strongly held and diverse cultural norms, obligates their personnel to be especially understanding in situations that are inherently stressful. These are difficult tasks on a daily basis.”
This was Blume’s third mission trip. “I have watched their fire and emergency response develop dramatically over the past five years. To see the evolutionary leaps they have made since my first visit in 2013 is remarkable. Their willingness to change and meet evolving challenges is impressive.”
The delegation’s education on Israel evolved during the mission, says Blume. “As practitioners of wildland and urban fire and community risk education, this background is critical for driving educated and informed dialogue with our Israeli counterparts.”
Peru says, “We had a great dialogue with our partners in Israel. We shared experiences and knowledge, helping one another to make a safer approach to disastrous incidents like wildfires.”
“During the conflict [the recent exchange with Hamas], they still managed to assemble a contingent of leadership to attend our training, rather than returning to their home units and families,” says TFD’s Maxwell. “We were literally treated like family. I was absolutely astounded at the generosity and hospitality from the Israel Fire Service and other agencies.”
The group conferred with leadership at fire stations in Jerusalem, Ashdod, Ashkelon, a kibbutz rescue center near Ein-Gedi, and Haifa, which houses the crews that fought the Mount Carmel fires. Meeting with Israel’s top tier command staff, the delegation presented and discussed “Strategy and Tactics for Wildland Urban Interface” and how to assess home ignition zones in various types of dwellings. “These classes and dialogue formed the beginnings for future delegations and continued learning,” says Blume. “The reciprocal relationship the Tucson area and Israel share was strongly felt.”
Golder Ranch Fire’s Lunde says, “I can truly say I felt safe while I was in Israel, and was impressed by the innovation and dedication of all the emergency responders I came in contact with. The fire service in Israel is only a small piece of their emergency services. They have the Israeli Defense Forces available to help out, as well as their ambulance service and police department, who all seem to work together seamlessly.”
Maxwell adds, “The southern region fire service practically operates in a war zone. During the barrage of rockets, some were effectively neutralized by Iron Dome, but others struck apartments, homes and specifically the gas system for a bakery.” The group visited the rubble and remains of some of those attacks.
“The firefighters displayed extreme bravery by donning protective vests, Kevlar helmets and conducting firefighting activities while exposed to rocket attack or even sniper fire,” Maxwell says of his counterparts. “These operations are a frequent occurrence; something American firefighters are not adapted to. The firefighters’ passion and dedication to protecting the citizens of their communities was very evident and honorable.”
Launched in 2013 by the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation, Firefighters Beyond Borders connects Arizona firefighters with counterparts in Israel to support one another in times of need. The same year, the organization partnered with the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Weintraub Israel Center and the Jewish Community Foundation to hold its first professional cultural-exchange delegation to Israel, sending seven firefighters from five regional agencies to embed with professional counterparts on a 12-day mission. In October 2015, the foundation, WIC and JFSA collaborated to bring four top-ranking Israeli emergency responders to Tucson.
In September 2016, five Tucson firefighters participated in the Emergency Volunteer Project training in Israel for first-responders to provide support for Israel in the event of war, natural or human-made disasters. Months later, some of those delegates returned to render emergency assistance as 1,773 fires, some natural and some arson, raged across Israel. Firefighters Beyond Borders raises its funds separately from the GTFF budget, according to the organization.
This year, JFSA’s Weintraub Israel Center and the JCF again collaborated to make this mission possible. Scholarships for the mission came from the Bryna Zehngut Community Fund held at JCF, and the JCF’s Israel Discovery Fund for Civic Leaders. WIC Director Amir Eden collaborated with Patty Vallance, an organizer behind the Firefighters Beyond Borders initiative, and others to secure funding and matched them with flights, tour arrangements, Israeli contacts, communications, security briefings and ground support coordinated from Tucson.
“The sustaining relationship between Southern Arizona Firefighters and their brothers and sisters in Israel aligns a great deal with our mission of taking care of our firefighters: dealing with mass casualties, active shooters, firefighter and community resiliency and now wildland urban fire. Taking care of those who take care of us,” says Mike McKendrick, chair of the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation.
“This program creates memories, friendships, and bonds that last a lifetime, and lets participants grow from strength to strength,” says Vallance. “The joy in my heart that comes from hearing from [former mission delegate] Richard Johnson: ‘We went as seven firefighters, and returned as seven ambassadors for Israel.’ It gives me goosebumps still, five years later.”