Lindenstrauss: 'Fire readiness falls on Yishai's shoulders'

State comptroller says Fire and Rescue Services are “weak link” in emergency readiness; report slams "unacceptable management."

December 8, 2010 15:08
A firefighter near Yemin Orde, Sunday

Firefighter carmel 311 ap. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services are the “weak link” in emergency readiness and the ministerial responsibility for that fact falls on Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s shoulders, a scathing report by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss revealed Wednesday afternoon. Although initially intended to be part of a larger follow-up report about the failures discovered regarding home front readiness after the Second Lebanon War, Lindenstrauss’s report on the fire services gained new significance after the Carmel fire killed 42 people and caused what is estimated to be billions of shekels of damage.

Lindenstrauss himself described the document as “a very serious report that testifies as well as 100 witnesses on completely unacceptable management, especially on the part of government-level decision-makers.”

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“I warn the government and the prime minister regarding the continuing failure which lies on the doorstep of the Interior Ministry and the minister who leads it,” said Lindenstrauss in his introductory letter to the report. “It is necessary to immediately stop the foot-dragging regarding the fire services, and the handing-off of responsibility from one minister to another. The ministers who have any association with the issue – starting with the Finance Minister and including the Defense Minister who is responsible for the National Emergency Authority – must join together to immediately carry out the government’s decision to establish a national fire and rescue authority and to organize the fire services in a way that suits its purpose – something that should have already been done.”

In the report, which compiled information from 2007-2009, the State Comptroller noted that Interior Minister Eli Yishai had warned the government regarding the dire state of the fire and rescue services, but did not say that it absolved Yishai – or his predecessor, MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) – from responsibility. Yishai was expected to hold a press conference to respond to the report shortly after it was cleared for publication on Wednesday afternoon.

Lindenstrauss described the Fire and Rescue Services as “the weak link” in home front preparedness. “Unfortunately, it became clear during the probe that the fire services, whose state was serious beforehand, have not been improved since the Second Lebanon War, even after our warnings in the report on the home front,” he complained. “In fact, the situation has gotten worse, to a point in which they are in danger of collapsing during a period of emergency. This could cause serious damage to all of the rescue and emergency services, as well as the loss of life and property and harm the strength of the home front.”

“Most of the lessons of the Second Lebanon War were not learned, the errors were not corrected, and once again, we can point to the lack of coordination between the governmental authorities, to foot-dragging by those responsible for the topic, and for the continuing argument over the failures that only increased the scope of the tragedy,” the State Comptroller added, predicting that “this report, unfortunately, will not be the last in a line of reports on painful topics if those responsible do not immediately learn its lessons.”

Lindenstrauss’s probe began in August 2009, following the last report which was published in 2007 in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. The 2007 report cited numerous problems in the fire service’s preparedness for states of emergency, including in the organizational structure, equipment and manpower. The fire commissioner, the report said, did not have the neccesary tools to allow him to use his authority under the law and there was no operations unit to serve as a rear headquarters in distributing forces. Firefighters were also assigned to regular IDF reserve units, meaning that during war, they could be called up for military service, further gutting the fire service’s manpower. At the same time, said the 2007 report, the Home Front Command, which includes reserve fire fighters, did not train its reservists.

“Not only were most of these failures not corrected, but rather the situation has become worse in light of the growing threat to the home front,” assessed Lindenstrauss.

Lindenstrauss said that from 2007-2009, the Fire Commissioner had repeatedly warned both former interior minister Sheetrit and the current minister Yishai, as well as the Finance Ministry, about the serious condition of the fire services, detailing what was lacking. In May 2008, following a proposal by Sheetrit to change the organizational structure of the fire services, the government voted to establish a national fire and rescue authority.  The government decision included a timetable for its establishment, but as of June 2010, noted Lindenstrauss, “the government decision was not carried out and the state of the fire services was as serious as ever.”

Yishai, Lindenstrauss confirmed, had in fact warned Prime Minsiter Binaymin Netanyahu about the state of the fire services. As early as September 2009, Yishai warned Netanyahu of the state of the fire services, asking him for assistance, but the subject was only officially discussed in December of that year.

Lindenstrauss also noted that in July 2010, following the conclusion of the State Controller’s Report, that the government once again voted to improve the fire services – but once again, made no progress in doing so.  

The State Comptroller noted that given the current IDF assessments that during a war, Israel’s home front will be subject to hundreds of rockets on a daily basis “in such an emergency, the fire services in their current state will not be able to cope with a large number of incidents, which will occur simultaneously and for a continuous period. The fire fighting mechanism could collapse under the weight and fail to provide residents with the necessary services, leaving many residents in a state of real mortal danger.”

Lindenstrauss said that the current organizational structure was “fundamentally  problematic”, leaving the fire commissioner without any real ability for command and control of forces in the field at any point in which the commissioner needs a “general view” of the situation. There is no single figure tasked with making decisions regarding distribution and prioritization of resources during an emergency.  “This continuing failure is first and foremost the responsibility of the Interior Ministry and the minister at its helm,” reiterated Lindenstrauss.

He also criticized the decision by the Treasury to make funding dependent on the fire service’s adoption of organizational reform. As a result, he complained, “the serious gaps regarding readiness for emergencies remained, and any attempt to address the subject ran into an unbearable state of a lack of solutions.”

The Finance Ministry replied that the “State Comptroller’s report must lead to an  immediate implementation of the reform in an effort to provide an  answer to the protection needs of the Home Front in times of regular  as well as emergency security situations.”

The ministry, officials claimed, “will act to implement the reform in its entire form and will assist the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry, and  the Internal Security Ministry in the execution of its recommendations  and foremost in the establishment of a national fire authority which  will be subject to the decisions taken by the government."

The Defense Ministry – and at its head, Defense Minister Ehud Barak - was given general responsibility for home front preparedness in April 2007, but Lindenstrauss said that it was “not actively involved together with the Interior Minister, and in accordance with necessity, the prime minister, in promoting any response to the fire service’s readiness during times of emergency.”

The Defense Ministry thanked the comptroller and his employees for preparing the report, and then promised that the ministry “will act as requested by the report and will aid the Interior Ministry, the Treasury, and the other relevant ministries in any way necessary in order to carry out the government decision to establish a national fire fighting and rescue authority, with the goal of structuring the fire services in a way that is appropriate to its role.”

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