Billy Hirth loves the Jewish people. Hirth, 52, a senior firefighter from Arlington, Texas, has been in Israel’s southern region for the last few days, helping local firefighters put out the fires caused by rockets from Gaza.
“I love Israel and its people — they are kind and giving. So I wanted to be helpful,” said Hirth. “My family has been very supportive, even though my wife doesn’t really want to know the details of what I’m doing.”
Hirth is here with 12 other colleagues of the Emergency Volunteers Project, a non-profit organization that trains American firefighters to operate in the Israeli environment during emergencies. The project was co-founded four years ago by Adi Zahavi, an Israeli volunteer medic from Jerusalem, who thought that recruiting reinforcements from abroad could help local firefighters.
Zahavi, 37, was concerned about the future clashes in Israel’s ongoing conflict and wanted to lay the groundwork for the help Israel would need in the future.
He and his friends formed the Emergency Volunteers Project, recruiting emergency personnel in the US with the help of friends in the US, and with the goal of training volunteers in Israel, letting them “get to know the environment,” he said.
When the rockets from Gaza began to fall in Israel last week, 13 American firefighters, including Hirth, flew to Israel, funded by the Washington, DC Jewish Federation. They came from Texas, California, New York, Washington DC and South Carolina, and have been in the south since they arrived, where they will remain until a new round of firefighters arrive from the US.
Over the last few years, the Emergency Volunteers Project has trained more than 250 American firefighters. At present, they have 80 firefighters on standby.
“The idea behind the project is that backup forces can be helpful to us only if they are trained to work with us, in Israel,” said Zahavi.
It’s been an intense few days, said Hirth. So far, he’s learned a lot on the job, from fighting fire in concrete buildings to working with fewer people.
“Israelis do more with less,” he said. “This experience has helped me understand how Israeli firefighters are able to offer the same service with fewer members on the team.”
Hirth was one of the first American firefighters to join the project, first training in Texas, and then with the first group in Israel. He currently directs the project in the US, meeting with locals and making sure both sets of firefighters — in Israel and the US — have what they need.
“The brotherhood of the firefighters goes all over the world,” he said. “We’re like a family. A lot of American firefighters love Israel; they’re begging to come.”