Catching the firefighting bug
The tragic death of a 16-year-old in the Carmel fire has sparked a wave of volunteerism among teenagers around the country.
The death of 16-year-old Elad Rivan in the Carmel Forest fire last week has put the Fire Scouts on the map, piquing the interest of teenagers around the country in what had previously been a relatively unknown organization of volunteer firefighters. In the wake of Rivan's tragic death, which occurred as he participated in the effort to rescue those trapped in the prison service bus that went up in flames, the Fire Scouts forum on the Israel Fire and Rescue Services website (www.102.co.il ) was inundated with requests from teenagers to join, prompting forum manager Shlomi Sa'adon, to post the following statement on Shabbat: "I see that the whole nation would like to volunteer, and I want to tell you that it's very heartwarming. But you have to understand. It's not that the fire services don't want you, but a volunteer has to take a basic course. If you think we will send you into an inferno like this without prior training, you are wrong. This is not some Lag Ba'omer bonfire. This is real fire, which kills, burns, scorches and consumes everything in its path, so we're sorry."
The Fire Scouts was founded in 1959 as a volunteer group for lsraeli teenagers and is currently integrated into the community service projects offered at the country's high schools. According to the fire services website, the scouts are an auxiliary firefighting force, but they do not operate on the front lines. They also pitch in on holidays when there is a high likelihood of fires, like Independence Day, with its abundance of barbecues and fireworks, and Lag Ba'omer, which is celebrated with bonfires.
There are about 350 Fire Scouts throughout the country. Each is required to do at least one five-hour shift a week at a fire station. Upon admission to the organization, they take a basic three-day course, and about eight or nine months later, a more advanced course. Rivan was supposed to have been an instructor in an advanced course this week.
Avi Cohen, director of the Fire Scouts in Haifa, opened the office there in 2007. "I started in five or six schools," he says. "By now, I have 20 schools involved and not enough room for everyone." Since the Carmel fire, he says, the number of high-school students interested in volunteering for the scouts has surged.
Liav Yogev, an 18-year-old who volunteered with Rivan, says: "It made me want to continue as a volunteer and to make Elad's story known, to mention him in every way possible."
Yehudit Yogev, Liav's mother, says she had no fears about sending her son to help the firefighters. "It was clear to us as parents that the children were not doing anything dangerous," she says. "Even now, it's clear to us that something went terribly wrong there." Friends warned her against allowing her son to join the firefighters during the blaze, but she says that "all the firefighters were called up, so do you think he was going to sit quietly at home? I couldn't have stopped him even if I'd wanted to."
Volunteering in the Fire Scouts has been "very good" for her son, Yogev says. "He's already a senior in high school, but he's continuing full-force and does far more than the 60 hours of volunteering he was required to do in 10th grade. All in all, he gets a lot out of it, he's matured a lot, especially after this last event."
Cohen, who oversees the group, agrees. "The moment they put on that uniform, they change," he says. "The kid we get that first day, the rowdy and not-so-disciplined kid, becomes a completely different person in uniform."
Ben Geller, a 21-year-old firefighter, was a volunteer in Haifa before the Fire Scouts were launched there and continued to volunteer on furloughs during his army service. After completing his army service, not long ago, Geller returned to the fire station as a full-fledged firefighter. "I knew that at the age of 15 I had to volunteer somewhere. I asked myself, 'What am I going to do? Help the elderly? Volunteer in the Scouts? In Magen David Adom? And then, one day, I don't know if it was because of some movie or an Internet site, I caught the firefighting bug.
"I called the station, and they didn't know what I was talking about. They told me, 'Who are you? Why do you want to volunteer? We don't know about any Fire Scouts.' It took me two nerve-racking years to get accepted as a volunteer. I did everything I could, I bugged them on the phone. Then, when I was about 16, after two years of trying, I got some courage and just showed up at the station where I said, 'I'm Ben, the guy who's been pestering you for the past two years. I want to be a volunteer here and that's how it's going to be.'" He was accepted.
"As a volunteer," Geller explains, "you don't do what a firefighter does. You're there to help him, and the boundaries are clear. You're not a firefighter, not yet. When firefighters get to a fire and need help laying out the hose or getting an ax to break down a door, you're there to help."
Unlike other boys, Geller says, he hasn't been able to overcome the firefighting bug. "The wish that 3-year-olds have to become firefighters fades after a few years, but with me, it's here until this very day. Being a firefighter is a way of life. A firefighter devotes his whole being to helping others."
The death of Rivan, who joined a firefighting crew from Afula dispatched to battle the fire that killed the Prison Service cadets, has placed the fire services on the defensive. For Cohen, it's important that the public know that "if there is a fire that involves risk to human life, the Fire Scouts stand aside and do not enter unless they are told otherwise."
According to Cohen, since Rivan joined the crew without registering at any station, when he disappeared, his whereabouts were unknown. "He saw the fire and said, 'I'm not here to register, I'm here to fight.' He got onto the first fire truck he found. They didn't know him, didn't know who he was. They saw a guy in uniform, but everyone was in a state of panic. They didn't know he was so young, and more manpower is always welcome."
Had they known where Rivan was heading, says Cohen, the Fire Scouts would have stopped him. "We found ourselves in a situation in which no one was putting out the fire, but instead, everyone was on the radio looking for him. Everyone was ordered to stop and look around and see if there was a kid named Elad in the vicinity. If the Afula team members had been in their vehicle, they would have heard the order and replied that he was with them. But they had already entered the inferno and couldn't let us know that he was with them. That's the point."
In wake of the tragedy, Cohen says that procedures will be revised. "The fire was very hard for us," he says. "I have been with the firefighters for more than 30 years, and I never had a fire like this. And not only me - no firefighter in this country has ever seen anything like it. Only in the movies, only in Hollywood." Still, he adds, the firefighters have every intention of continuing to work with their young volunteers.