Israeli firefighters warmly welcomed
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Israeli firefighters warmly welcomed

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With a training blaze in the background, Israeli firefighters pose for a group picture to send back home to a comrade who stayed behind for his wedding. Photos by Charles Zusman

Amir Levi watched as his men crunched open a wrecked car using the “Jaws of Life.”

“We don’t have a place to train like this in Israel,” he said admiringly on Sunday of the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute in Mahwah. Levi, the chief of the Western Galilee fire brigade, was visiting New Jersey with a group of public safety personnel – 11 firefighters, one police officer, and one paramedic.

Earlier on Sunday morning, the men had practiced rappelling down the side of a building. Later, they visited Ridgewood fire headquarters for lunch and a tour of the station. In a light moment, they took turns sliding down the firehouse pole.

The next day they visited New York City, with a stop at the United Nations, the fire-training facility on Randall’s Island, and Engine 10, Ladder 10, at the firehouse near the World Trade Center devastated on 9/11.

It was all part of a tour that took them to a host of fire departments to see how things are done here.

At Mahwah, the chief of special operations for the brigade, Yigal Ben Abu, echoed Levi’s praise. Because of the facilities, one week of training here is equivalent to two months of training in Israel, he said.

“This is unbelievable,” he said, pointing to a multi-story structure in which real flames simulate a variety of building fires. Their training during the visit covered use of masks, exposure to heat, rope rescues, search-and-rescue inside buildings, the use of foam, and battling car fires.

The visit is part of an ongoing program in which public safety officers from New Jersey have visited Israel and their Israeli counterparts have come here. The first such exchange, in 2004, brought a Jersey contingent to Israel.

Including the current visit, there have been four exchanges so far – two of Americans going to Israel and two of Israelis coming here. The program is sponsored by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel “Partnership 2000″ program, said Miriam Allenson, who helped shepherd the visiting firefighters.

The “people-to-people” focus also arranges exchanges by other groups, including teachers, doctors, and youths, said Stuart Levy, UJA community shaliach. The program promotes ties between groups in the United States with particular regions in Israel, Levy explained. For the UJA-NNJ it’s the Nahariya area.

The current exchange began with the Israelis’ arrival last Wednesday, Sept. 9, and the visitors were scheduled to leave on Thursday, Sept. 17.

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In a visit to fire headquarters in Ridgewood, Capt. Shlomo Fadida leads the way for his comrades in sliding down the firehouse pole.

By American standards, the Israelis make do with limited resources. The entire Israeli firefighting force is made up of some 1,500 members – for a national population of 7.5 million, explained Larry Rauch, coordinator of safety programs for Bergen County. Rauch led the visitors around the county and on visits to New York.

The firefighters work one 24-hour shift on and two off, Rauch said, and that breaks down to about 500 persons on duty for the entire country at a given time. Unlike in the United States, where many firefighters are volunteers, the Israelis are full-time salaried employees.

Rauch brought his observations from his own visit to Israel. He said the engines there are made by Mercedes Benz, but the ladder trucks are American-made E-Ones.

Firefighting challenges are different, Rauch said, because while in this area many houses are wood-framed, in Israel the buildings are primarily concrete. The Israelis, therefore, more often face fires burning the interior and contents of the buildings, rather than the structure. In general, they face the range of issues familiar to American firefighters – hazardous material emergencies, car accidents, and high-rise fires, for example.

The Western Galilee firefighters, however, sometimes face problems their American counterparts don’t – Arabs throwing stones and rockets fired from Lebanon. There is cooperation, however, Ben Abu said.

The area comprises 14 municipalities with about a 50-50 Jewish-Arab split. The fire brigade consists of 82 firefighters, 20 of them Arab. The firefighters look after small villages and a big city, the coastal community of Nahariya. The brigade is very busy, handling some 5,000 incidents a year, Ben Abu said.

Besides taking home firefighting and training tips, the visitors return to Israel with warm feelings and good wishes. “In every firehouse we visited, we met good people,” said Ben Abu. “We met many mayors and we got respect from all the people here,” he said.

Among towns they visited were Hackensack, Paramus, River Edge, Ramsey, Ridgewood, Upper Saddle River, Wyckoff, Palisades Park, Mahwah, Oakland, Hasbrouck Heights, and Fair Lawn.

At Oakland, they attended the fire department’s 100th anniversary parade and were honored as the fire company that traveled the farthest.

Especially touching for the visitors was a visit to the 9/11 memorial in Overpeck Park in Leonia. When their presence was announced, they were greeted by cheers from the crowd.

“We are nothing compared to what happened on that day,” Ben Abu said, marveling at the reception he and his comrades received on that somber occasion.

Rauch was not surprised by the hospitality shown the visitors by local fire departments.

“Wherever you go in the world, a fireman is a fireman,” he said.

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