One year ago, columns of smoke rose from the blackened remains of the Mount
Carmel forest, testament to the Israel Fire and Rescue Service’s failure to cope
with a giant blaze that spread quickly over parched land.
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people lost their lives – two firemen and a 16-year-old volunteer battling the
blaze; three senior police officers assisting in rescue efforts; and 36 Prisons
Service cadets, their commander and their driver, who burned alive in their
The shortcomings that beleaguered the service then are familiar by
now to most Israelis: A lack of firefighting planes, antiquated equipment,
chronic shortages in trucks, personnel and equipment, a lack of coordination,
Today, however, the organization has changed so
dramatically for the better that it would be difficult to recognize it as the
same Fire and Rescue Service of 2010, its commissioner, Shahar Ayalon, told The
Ayalon, formerly head of the Tel Aviv police
district, took up his post in May, when the government also elected to place the
organization under the jurisdiction of the Public Security
“What I found here were professional firefighters,” Ayalon
Asked what he contributed to the service from his experience in the
police, he responded, “I brought the ability to handle complex systems with me
to this position, as well as experience in dealing with unusual incidents, and
long-term planning. We can definitely deal with an incident like the Carmel fire
today because of the several changes we made.”
During last December’s
fire, the service struggled to keep all of the firefighters in touch with one
another, and suffered a breakdown in communications with other emergency responders.
of coordination was one of the reasons behind the Prisons Service’s disastrous
decision to send a bus filled with cadets to evacuate a prison in the fire’s
path – a mistake that led the bus directly into the speeding flames, killing
those on board.
“Today, we operate an information and control system from
our headquarters in Rishon Lezion,” said Ayalon. “It works 24/7, and connects
the whole system together. It also connects us to paramedics, police and our
aerial firefighting wing. It sees every development, tracks it, and can deploy
responses on a national level.”
The NIS 5 million computerized system,
named Shalhevet (Hebrew for “ember”), is designed to overcome the structural
weakness that arises from the fact that there is no single firefighting
authority, but rather, 24 quasi-independent regional branches that operate in
conjunction with the commissioner.
The system will also be linked to a
revolutionary computer that can predict the direction a fire will spread in,
based on weather and geography.
“We have doubled the number of operations
officers in the service, who in turn are overseeing a rise in drills and
simulations,” Ayalon said.
Since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
ordered the air force to set up a fleet of firefighting planes, seven aircraft
have come into operation. The service hopes to expand that number to 12 in the
“We are also renewing our vehicles. We purchased almost 100
new fire trucks for our departments,” Ayalon said. The new trucks, which come
with modern ladder systems and other vital equipment, will replace aging and
“New stations are being opened around the country, such
as the one in Ramat Hovav [in the Negev], a site that has dangerous
petrochemicals on it,” he added.
The Fire and Rescue Service laid a
cornerstone for a new station in Usfiya, where the two youths – who accidentally
threw a water pipe charcoal into a forest that sparked last year’s massive blaze
– came from.
Additionally, 300 tons of fire retardants – a substance that
quickly ran out during last year’s disaster – has been amassed, and fire chiefs
hope to eventually store 1,600 tons of the substance.
The Public Security
Ministry has made NIS 100m. available this year to the cash-starved departments
for purchases, and a further NIS 150m. will be available in 2012.
hundred new firefighters were enlisted this year, increasing numbers by 20
percent, and a large firefighting academy was opened in Rishon Lezion to train
“This is the beginning. We’re not planning on stopping
here,” Ayalon vowed.