SUNY New Paltz staff member and professional firefighter Scott Schulte recently returned from a volunteer mission to the Middle East, where he participated in a program that recruits, trains, and deploys volunteers for emergency response in Israel.
Schulte, assistant director of fire safety in the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, has been traveling to Israel as part of the Emergency Volunteer Project (EVP) for the past five years. However, while all of his previous visits have been for training purposes, his most recent trip to the country in mid-July (in the midst of the violent war currently raging in the Gaza Strip) was the first-ever EVP emergency deployment in Israel, which Schulte said was “the most eye-opening experience I have had in my life.”
The EVP is a joint effort between the citizens of Israel and the U.S., and the only organization in the world that is approved by the Israeli government to deploy during times of emergency, as well as for humanitarian purposes like food, water, medicine delivery, and setting up bomb shelters, said Schulte. Firefighters who participate in the EVP undergo numerous trainings in both the U.S. and Israel, including war, terrorism, and natural disaster scenarios.
EVP deployments occur “when the Israeli government calls for assistance,” said Schulte, who has been a local volunteer firefighter for 16 years; a professional fire investigator for four years; and a university fire protection officer for seven years.
“The Israeli Fire & Rescue Service is unique in that they have limited resources, as compared to the U.S. fire services, which become further taxed during nearly annual wars and major incidents,” said Schulte. “While I was fortunate to build relationships with Israelis during my trips to Israel over the past five years, this deployment really solidified those relationships by underscoring our dedication as firefighters to help even during war.”
Schulte said that during his recent deployment, the 13 responding U.S. firefighters got a firsthand look at “the impact of non-stop terrorism on the civilian population,” facing nonstop rocket attacks while responding to emergencies and working in frontline fire stations with Israeli firefighters.
“Perhaps most impactful was the realization that these Israeli firefighters were leaving their families at home, directly in the line of fire, while they worked back-to-back shifts protecting their country,” said Schulte. “They often went hours without knowing if their families were safe, knowing that rockets were falling in their neighborhoods, but being unable to stop what they were doing to check on their wives and children.”
Schulte said that during previous stints in Israel for training, he and his team experienced a few sporadic rocket fires which took place miles away from their training site. But his most recent trip “was the first time we were mobilized for all-out war and faced rockets, mortars, missiles, and bombs.” He was struck by how the constant missile strikes have become a routine part of daily life for Israeli citizens.
“We all noted how odd it was to be interrupted regularly by falling missiles, filled with ball-bearings meant to kill and injure as many civilians as possible, only to return to those everyday tasks as soon as the air raid sirens stopped or the Iron Dome Missile Defense System intercepted the rocket fire, as if it was as normal as answering the phone,” said Schulte. “We found ourselves becoming accustomed to continuous terror attacks that would completely incapacitate the U.S. after only one incident.”
The experience has been a life-changing one for all the EVP officers involved, said Schulte.
“Our experiences over the past two weeks served to put life in perspective,” said Schulte. “While our work was never related to politics or religion, and neither was ever discussed, we did recognize the differences between the day-to-day lives in the two countries, and certainly learned to appreciate how fortunate we are as Americans.”