Analysis: A tragedy that was waiting to happen

Firefighters know that their organization has been systematically neglected by the government for decades.

December 3, 2010 08:01
4 minute read.
Fire rages in the Carmel, Thursday

Carmel fire 311. (photo credit: Israel Police)


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In May, the Fire and Rescue Service held a drill to simulate some of the worst scenarios drawn up by Home Front Command planners. But officials told The Jerusalem Post at the time that the exercise was largely meaningless, because the organization was underfunded, understaffed and lacking the equipment needed to tackle the kind of massive disaster scenario that materialized Thursday.

The disaster now raging across the North may well serve as a tragic wake-up call to the government and spur efforts to bring the Fire and Rescue Service into the 21st century.

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Too late. Tragically, too late.

As the flames engulfed Mount Carmel, the brave men of the Fire and Rescue Service continued to do battle with the fires, risking their lives in the process.

But despite their gallant efforts, the firefighters know that their organization has been systematically neglected by the government for decades.

In May, the Fire Service held a drill to simulate some of the worst scenarios drawn up by Home Front Command planners, but officials then told The Jerusalem Post that the exercise was largely meaningless because the organization is underfunded, understaffed, and lacking in equipment needed to tackle the kind of large-scale disaster scenario which materialized on Thursday.

Only 1,400 firefighters currently serve in the organization, which remains decentralized and is partially dependent on the funding of regional councils, Fire and Rescue Commissioner Shimon Romach told the Post in May.

“The lack of funding has reached unbearable levels. What we have now is insufficient for peacetime. Our standards are irrelevant today, and they were barely relevant 20 years ago. In 1998, a government committee said 2,400 active firefighters were needed for adequate responses to fires during peacetime.

Twelve years later, we have half of that number.

“Our vehicles are in a similar situation. And we have no reserve members to fall back on,” he continued.

Unlike the Israel Police and the IDF, the Fire Service is a decentralized organization lacking a national command center and single state funding source, Romach explained.

Local councils and municipalities manage regional fire stations and have final say on their budgets, which are provided jointly by local authorities and the Finance Ministry.

The firefighters are often located low down on the priority ladder of local and national authorities, especially in cash-starved peripheral councils, Romach added.

“The government sees us as a step-son. Our budget has been neglected for years,” said Yoram Levi, the Fire Service spokesman.

Romach said isolated incidents could be dealt with using creative techniques to bypass the shortage of manpower, such as moving fire crews from one regional council to another to tackle a serious blaze, as happened on Thursday.

But in a fire as large as the one that broke out on Thursday, such techniques were grossly insufficient to deal with the crisis, while also leaving other regional councils, towns, and cities exposed should serious fires break out elsewhere.

Representatives of firefighters and the government have been holding intensive talks in an effort to solve the crisis.

The Finance Ministry has demanded structural changes as a condition for increased funding.

In 2008, the government decided to create a national firefighting authority, but that goal was far from being reached, Romach said in May.

“The authority has yet to be launched, and it will be a very problematic birth. But we are trying to get there,” he said.

Also on Thursday, Ma’ariv cited sources in the Interior Ministry as slamming the Finance Ministry for transferring only NIS 100 million of NIS 500 million requested for the Fire Service this year.

Sources in the Finance Ministry responded by saying that all funds requested by the government for the Fire Service had been transferred, noting that in June the government had decided on a NIS 100 million cash injection which would be funded jointly by the Finance Ministry, Interior Ministry and local authorities.

An additional NIS 7 million had been transferred to boost the Fire Service’s aerial capabilities, the sources said.

Thursday’s disaster may well serve as a tragic wake-up call to the government and spur efforts to bring the fire service into the 21st century.

Too late. Tragically, too late.

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