Two firefighters from Montgomery County are part of a group of American emergency workers who are in Israel working alongside their Israeli counterparts. The Americans are prepared to stand in for them should the Israelis be deployed in the military.
“We will be indistinguishable from an Israeli firefighter, except maybe our accents. We will be shoulder to shoulder with them,” said Robert Katz, who is in charge of the team while it is in Israel.
“We are there to do a job. We are there to save lives. We are also there to be ambassadors of goodwill,” he said, adding, “I am happy to have the opportunity to help. That’s what we are trained to do.”
Most of the group landed in Israel on Monday, but the two men from this area were delayed by a Sunday-night storm and ended up flying out of Newark late Monday afternoon. They are part of the Emergency Volunteers Project (EVP), which recruits emergency personnel and community volunteers in America to be trained by their Israeli counterparts so they are ready to help when needed.
“It helps create a two-way relationship. Israel is sharing knowledge” while being assisted by Americans,” said Katz of Rockville. The first responders from the United States “are very, very seasoned people” who only need training to adapt to firefighting in Israel. That means learning how to help “when you are being shot at” as well as determining how best to fight fires in Israeli buildings, which are typically made of concrete. Most buildings here are wooden.
The Americans also learn not to rush into a scene and immediately begin helping, as they are trained to do here. In Israel, an emergency worker must first scan the area for possible bombs and terrorists.
Katz’s team consists of firefighters from Texas, South Carolina, New York and California as well as himself and Jason Goldberg of Potomac. The local team is supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which allocated $50,000 to the EVP so that a total of 20 firefighters from this area can spend one to two weeks handling fires in Israel this summer.
Katz called his team’s efforts “a morale boost for Israel so they know America is behind them.”
He said only two-thirds of his team is Jewish, but religion wasn’t an obstacle in recruiting volunteers. “People wanted to help another country,” Katz said.
Back in December 2012, several Israelis came to the Kensington Fire Station #5 to train their American counterparts so they would be available in the event of a natural disaster or war. When Israelis are called up into service, far fewer people remain throughout the country to help in the cities and towns.
The training provided by EVP includes instructions for firefighters, medical personnel, bomb-shelter workers and infrastructure workers who are charged with rescuing victims in collapsed buildings.
“I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate support and help save lives in Israel than what these volunteers are doing,” said Adi Zahavi, director of EVP and one of the Israelis who came to Kensington. “At a time when people are canceling trips to Israel, and Israelis wonder where their friends are, these volunteers help lift our spirit,” said Zahavi in a statement he issued from his command post in Jerusalem.
Katz expects his team to be helping in Israel for seven-to-10 days, with the possibility of an extension. Other EVP groups from across the country are expected to arrive in Israel this summer.
While Katz was quick to point out that Israel is not experiencing a critical shortage of emergency responders, he said the Americans will be “stepping up to assist and show support, irsthand, to our brothers and sisters in harm’s way and to free them up for other duties.”
EVP was created by Zahavi, who realized the that first responders in both Israel and America had much to offer each other, as Israel needed America’s manpower and American emergency workers can benefit from the knowledge Israelis have gained during its 66 years.
Since then, about 500 Americans have gone through EVP’s training with a goal of having 2,000 Americans ready to help in Israel.