AZ and Israeli firefighters

Arizona firefighters observe Israeli emergency response systems on a 2016 trip to the Jewish state. 

After 9/11, Richard Johnson, then a captain for the Tucson Fire Department, thought Arizona needed to be more proactive in preparing for potential mass casualty events, as few departments around the U.S. had any repeated experience with them.

“I started looking at who has done this that we could learn from,” Johnson said. “The Israelis were who came to mind.”

Both Arizona and Israel are arid regions made to bloom by means of modern technology and large-scale irrigation projects. Unfortunately, this has left both susceptible to fire.

In Arizona, the most common causes of wildfires are lightning or improperly extinguished campfires. In Israel, wildfires occur as well, though the more pressing threat is the fires started by incendiary devices attached to kites or balloons that are launched from Gaza.

Johnson had been mulling the idea of trying to learn from Israel’s experience and share Arizona’s expertise when Patty Vallance came to his station for a ride along.

Vallance, an active member of the Tucson Jewish community, was visiting the station as part of her volunteer work with the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation, which was incorporated in 2010 with an anonymous $10,000 donation given through Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

When Johnson mentioned his idea to share knowledge with Israel, Vallance responded with a succinct question: When are you going?

“I didn’t know at the time that Patti was a little Jewish lady that had connections,” Johnson said. “She called me a couple weeks later saying, ‘Would you be willing to meet with some of the leaders of the Jewish community?’ Eleven months later we were on a plane to Israel.”

The 2013 trip, organized under the auspices of the Fire Foundation’s Firefighters Beyond Borders program, saw seven firefighters from across Arizona travel to Israel for nearly two weeks. The trip received funding from a number of Tucson Jewish organizations, including Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona and Temple Emanu-El.

The American team visited high-level command centers, the control tower at Ben Gurion International Airport and municipal fire stations. They observed emergency drills and even met with ordinary Israelis impacted by fire and terrorism.

While there were differences, the Israeli and Arizonan first responders did share the experience of coping with losses in their ranks. For Israel, it was the 2010 Mount Carmel fire that left 44 people dead, including three firefighters. For Arizona, it was the Yarnell Hill Fire, which took place mere months before the trip and had resulted in the deaths of 19 firefighters.

“The Mount Carmel fire was a game changer for the Israeli fire service,” said Thomas Tucker, chief of the Tucson Airport Authority Fire Department who was also on the trip. “They were individual districts and municipalities at the time, but as a result of the Mount Carmel fires, they actually nationalized the fire service. Unfortunately, tragedy is a catalyst for change.”

This common sense of loss hung over one of the trip’s culminating events.

“I’ll never forget when we planted a tree on Mount Carmel at the memorial to the lost firefighters there,” Johnson said. “We happened to meet a mother of one of the individuals that was lost. That really hit home.”

Earlier that year, the Israeli firefighter’s mother and widow had attended a memorial service for those lost in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Prescott and another event in Scottsdale.

“Just like in law enforcement, when you lose a law enforcement officer, people travel from all over the world to pay their respects,” Tucker said. “That doesn’t surprise me a bit that they showed up and showed their fellowship.”

The Arizona team was impressed by the speed and level of community involvement shown by Israel in responding to emergencies, though they also noted the way each area organizes its emergency responders varies significantly.

“The traditional model in the U.S. is that we do all hazards,” Tucker said. “We do hazmat. We do EMS. We do technical rescue. They don’t do EMS. Maybe 90 percent of our profession in the U.S. is EMS response. We do not respond to house fires like we used to. It is different and their staffing levels are different. They do have a definite intent to raise that to levels that they feel are appropriate. It all comes back to the Carmel fire.”

In addition to efforts to upgrade Israel’s aerial fire response with the acquisition of dedicated planes and helicopters, Israel also needs to replace its aging fleet of fire trucks.

To this end, Jewish National Fund donated six small water trucks to a community in the Gaza Envelope, the Eshkol region. JNF Arizona Board President Susan Farber was recently in Israel and witnessed the devastation wrought by the improvised aerial firebombs and rocket attacks as part of her work with the JNF’s Gaza Envelope Taskforce.

“In the Negev, this Gaza Envelope area is one of the regions where we are building,” Farber said. “We have other departments within the JNF, like the taskforce I’m on, where we look for the holes where we can enhance and support a quality of life that people want. We’re helping to build some of the infrastructure to support this.”

Firefighters Beyond Borders also continues to have an impact on Arizona and Israel.

In 2015, Tucson hosted a delegation of four high-level Israeli first responders, including Brigadier General Shmulik Friedman, chief of operations for Israel Fire and Rescue Authority.

In late 2016, five Arizona firefighters traveled to Israel to help fight a series of devastating blazes there.

Despite the fact fires were again afflicting the Mount Carmel area, the Arizona firefighters were heartened to find the trees they had planted in 2013 had been left unscathed.

“God wouldn’t let them burn twice,” Vallance remembers saying when one of the firefighters called to tell her this news.

Another delegation of Arizona firefighters is scheduled to travel to Israel later this year. JN