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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Welfare and Social Services Ministry was not fully prepared in its emergency drills, procedure and protective facilities ahead of last summer's war with Hizbullah in Lebanon, according to the state comptroller's report on how government bodies dealt with last summer's emergency situation released Wednesday.
Even though the report commended the ministry for carrying out some important activities during the war period - including coordinating efforts to distribute food and essential items to the needy and those in distress - the state comptroller found some serious shortcomings concerning the deployment of ministry professionals and their preparedness.
It called on Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog to put together a cohesive emergency plan for the future, to include exact evacuation procedures and the verification that bomb shelters and fortified rooms are fully operational for the special needs community.
"We take this report very seriously," Herzog told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday, highlighting that he had not yet been appointed to the portfolio when the war took place. "A lot of work is required to improve the situation and we have already started implementing changes, including emergency rules and a NIS 10 million emergency fund for any immediate requirements."
He noted that one of the report's central criticisms was the joint cooperation between the ministry and other relevant bodies, such as the Home Front Command. The ministry's Director-General Nachum Itzkovitz has already started discussions with emergency services to improve this weak spot, said Herzog.
According to the report, the ministry, which cares directly for some 32,000 people nationwide and provides services to a total of 1.2 million people via local municipal services, failed to carry out emergency drills and check the state of its bomb shelters and protective facilities in advance of the war. More than 12,500 ministry dependants live in 237 ministry-run institutions in the North and Haifa districts, found the investigators who carried out the research between September 2006 and March 2007.
The report noted that it was the responsibility of the ministry to determine the course of activities that should have been implemented by social services staff during a time of war, including coordinating efforts with the Home Front Command.
For those who rely directly on the services of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, including the physically and mentally disabled in state-run institutions, youth in rehabilitative care, children at risk and the elderly, an existing government policy states that state-run facilities should already be equipped with conveniently located bomb shelters and protective rooms.
However, during the first days of the war, a ministry check of 27 institutions in the northern region revealed that 22 percent of them did not have adequate bomb shelters or protective rooms; 52% had no evacuation procedure in place; 44% could not provide transportation to evacuate the residents; and 92% had no alternative generator in case of a power failure.
Furthermore, 31% did not have extra fuel or gas supply in case of an emergency, and 30% had no surplus food supply if other avenues to resources were suddenly cut.
In terms of evacuation, the ministry did succeed in removing residents of some 37 institutions - 1,700 individuals; however, the report noted, this in no way fulfilled the needs of those who should have been removed from direct danger.
Those who were evacuated and relocated by the ministry also faced a series of challenges, found the comptroller's investigators, adding that many of the institutions to which they were taken were not prepared to deal with them and, in many cases, the new environment had an adverse effect on the evacuees.
Regarding those cared for indirectly by the ministry via services from the local municipalities, the state comptroller's report found similar complications. While the comptroller noted that it was not necessarily the role of the ministry to prepare local authority workers for a time of emergency, the report did point out that it was the ministry's job to ensure the normal running of and provide professional assistance to the variety of social welfare services offered to the general population.
"The Welfare and Social Services Ministry was not adequately prepared for such an emergency," writes the report's authors. "During the war, the ministry allowed its workers to seek outside assistance from nonprofit organizations to guide them professionally on how to deal with people in this emergency situationâ€¦ The services provided by local authorities during this crisis were too few and arrived too late; the budgets given to these local authority services during the war did not sufficiently correspond to the demand."
According to a 1998 directive, the ministry is meant to provide local authority welfare departments with emergency training and guidance in operating alongside the relevant bodies. As of August 2006, only 48 out of 251 local authorities had received that training, with only one city being from the North, found the report.
In reference to those who are not regularly treated by social welfare services but turned to the system for help during the war, the report also found that the ministry workers were not fully prepared for the demand.