- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Think fighting fires is dangerous? Try doing it in a war zone.

Spurred by the violence in Israel, a dozen firefighters and emergency responders from across the United States have deployed to the embattled country, where they are supporting their Middle East colleagues on the front lines as part of the Emergency Volunteers Project.

Speaking by phone from Sderot, Israel, near where residents perched on hillsides to watch missiles streak toward the Gaza Strip, Rockville resident Robert Katz said his decision to drop everything and fly halfway around the world was easy.

“I’ve been doing fire and rescue since I was 16. To have the opportunity to help as much as I can this is an obvious no-brainer to give back to that community,” the 49-year-old firefighter said. “This is a lifetime’s worth of emergency calls that you get in a week. You learn so much from this experience, and that goes back and helps me serve my own home community.”

Mr. Katz landed Tuesday in Israel, and he and fellow volunteers were planning to stay at least a week. Their preparation for the deployment, however, started several years ago.

The Emergency Volunteers Project, which has offices in Massachusetts and Jerusalem, started about four years ago, project director Adi Zahavi said.

“We knew there was so much support in the world, in the United States. We know a lot of people who would drop everything to come to Israel for war, or it can be an earthquake, natural disaster, or it can be a conflict like what we have today,” Mr. Zahavi said in a phone call from Israel.

The plan was to recruit and train firefighters, paramedics and emergency responders, and deploy them during a crisis for a second wave of support on the front lines.

The volunteers were trained at home and abroad on the differences in emergency response in the U.S. and Israel.

“The equipment is different than the equipment we have in the United States. Also, while homes and apartments [in the U.S.] are built from wood, we use stone,” Mr. Zahavi said.

During a fire in the U.S., one firetruck usually arrives on the scene with several firefighters. In Israel, only two or three firefighters board the truck.

“It’s important how they operate the water, how they go into buildings,” Mr. Zahavi said. “We’re not training them to be firefighters. We’re training them to work according to the Israeli system.”

Getting the volunteer first responders to Israel is an expensive challenge that has been met in the District.

Steven Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said the Emergency Volunteers Project approached them last year.

“We liked the concept. We were hoping we’d never have to enact it when the missiles started firing,” Mr. Rakitt said. “They called us, we took it immediately to the executive committee, who unanimously voted to support it.”

The federation has raised $240,000 in its Israel Emergency Campaign, and $50,000 has been allocated to send up to 20 firefighters to Israel.

The volunteers in Israel hail from California to New York. They are not paid, but are covered by insurance through the Emergency Volunteers Project and the Israeli fire services.

“In terms of diversity, interesting enough many are Christian, which for me, as an observing Jew, makes my hair stand up,” said Gary Schiff, 59, of Potomac, who is the D.C.-area coordinator for the Emergency Volunteers Project. “It makes you feel so appreciated at times when you don’t know you have friends, there are people from other faiths willing to fly into Israel.”

Mr. Katz, who is an instructor for firefighting paramedics and special operations, said the volunteers come from all walks of life and represent all major religions.

“It’s really about people helping people when they’re under attack,” he said. “They don’t care anything about [the demographics] of victims. Whether they’re trapped in a car, having a heart attack, in a burning building, we’ll lend assistance.”

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