Lindenstrauss: Yishai to blame for poor state of fire dept.

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

December 9, 2010 02:44
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.

Lindenstrauss warned that the failures of the fire service could lead to disaster in a future war, when hundreds of missiles raining down on the home front could lead to a scenario in which the fire services completely collapsed.

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Although initially intended to be part of a larger follow-up report about the failures discovered in 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 to completely unacceptable management, especially on the part of government-level decision-makers.”

“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,” he continued. “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 already have been done.”

In the report, which compiled information from 2007- 2009, the state comptroller noted that Yishai had warned the government about the dire state of the fire and rescue services, but did not say that it absolved Yishai – or his predecessor, Kadima MK Meir Sheetrit – of responsibility.

Yishai responded shortly after the report was released, thanking the comptroller for it and promising that his office was committed to carrying out the report’s recommendations.

Yishai reiterated that he had asked for a significant increase in the fire service budget, and placed the blame on the Finance Ministry.

The interior minister complained that in recent days, there had been “terrible incitement” against him, but deflected calls for his resignation, saying that “I’m strong, and will keep struggling to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel and fulfill the State Comptroller’s Report.”

Lindenstrauss described the Fire and Rescue Services as “the weak link” in home front preparedness.

Sheetrit, in turn, responded that “while I was in office, I demanded an addition of NIS 500 million [to the fire budget] from both the prime minister and the finance minister, but my letter received no response.”

In the report, Lindenstrauss complained that “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. In fact, the situation has gotten worse, to the point that 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.”

He continued, “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 matter, and for the continuing argument over the failures that only increased the scope of the tragedy.”

The state comptroller predicted 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, published in 2007, in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. That report cited numerous problems in the fire service’s readiness for states of emergency, including in the organizational structure, equipment and manpower. The fire commissioner, the report said, did not have the necessary tools to allow him to use his authority under the law, and there was no specific operations command designed to serve as a rear headquarters and to distribute forces in the field.

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 firefighters, did not train its reservists.

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

He said that from 2007 to 2009, the fire commissioner had repeatedly warned both Sheetrit and 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 Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about the state of the fire services as early as September 2009, asking him for assistance. However, the subject was only officially discussed in December of that year.

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

Given the current IDF assessments that during a war, Israel’s home front would be subject to hundreds of rockets on a daily basis, the state comptroller said, “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 firefighting 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 to command and control forces in the field at any point that the commissioner needed 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 untenable situation in which there were no 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 entirety and will assist the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the Public 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, headed by Ehud Barak, was given general responsibility for home front preparedness in April 2007, but Lindenstrauss said 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.”

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