Grass-fire diplomacy

Robert Katz of Rockville makes sure everything is ready to go during his time fire fighting in Israel
Robert Katz of Rockville makes sure everything is ready to go during his time fire fighting in Israel

Two Montgomery County firefighters have returned from Israel, where they were working around the clock for some two weeks putting out fires started as a result of relentless rocket attacks from Gaza.

“There was no down time. There were even nights where I slept in the [bomb] shelter,” said firefighter Jason Goldberg of Potomac. “We responded to all incidents. We were full blown, operational,” working shoulder to shoulder with Israeli firefighters. “Wherever the bombs would go, we go. We didn’t sleep for like a week straight. We were basically taking one hour naps here and there,” said another firefighter, Robert Katz, of Rockville.

The two men were part of a team of 12 American firefighters who headed to Israel for at least a week as part of the Emergency Volunteers Program, an Israeli nonprofit that recruits and trains emergency personnel in America to help when needed.

The Americans’ expenses were mostly covered by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. When a large fire erupts in Montgomery County, firefighters here can turn to their counterparts in neighboring counties for help. “Israel does not have that luxury,” said Goldberg.

After learning Israeli firefighting techniques, Goldberg and Katz were thrust into action.

Whenever a siren went off, they rushed to the nearest shelter. “As soon as we got the all clear, or heard a bang, we started getting dressed” in their firefighting gear, Katz said. If a Hamas rocket landed in a grassy area, they had to put out the resulting brushfires, said Katz, explaining, “It’s very dry there.” Even rockets intercepted by the defensive Iron Dome system usually resulted in a brushfire from the resulting shrapnel, which “can cut trees in half,” Katz said.

In between all of that, the firefighters also freed an Israeli child from a locked car and put out fires from terrorist attacks unrelated to the current war.

Friday evenings, right before Shabbat, there “there was always a brushfire,” Katz said. Although they worked out of several fire stations, for the most part, both men were near Israel’s border with Gaza.

At one location, they had a mere six seconds to get to a bomb shelter, Katz said. Neither man complained.

“It was business as usual,” Goldberg said. “It’s just what we do. We take risks, calculated risks,” added Katz.

Goldberg, a volunteer at Montgomery County station 10 in West Bethesda, said he is grateful for all the equipment and funding this area has to fight fires, unlike in Israel where one tool must serve many functions and everyone is cross-trained in various specialties.

While the men downplayed their efforts, the reception they received was anything but low key. Israelis came to the station with food and hugs.

They were stopped on the streets so people could shake their hands, Katz said. “It was crazy how much of an impact we had. We were American ambassadors,” he said. They were constantly thanked and told, “ ‘We thought America forgot about us. We thought the world forgot about us,’ ” Katz recalled. Katz even was greeted by Daniel Shapiro, ambassador of the United States to Israel, “He thanked us for our grassroots diplomacy.” Katz corrected him: “grass-fire diplomacy.” Both men were grateful for the experience. “It’s not about politics. It’s about people helping people,” Katz said.

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