Sounding the fire alarm

2 recent near-disasters could have triggered major calamities with incalculable ramifications.

November 24, 2010 21:43
3 minute read.
Fire breaks out at Shalom Tower, Tel Aviv

Shalom Tower fire 311. (photo credit: Aloni Mor)

Two major Israeli urban centers have suffered near-mega- disasters in the past few days, underscoring ever-present dangers in the hearts of our cities.

Last week’s fire on the 29th story of the Shalom Tower highlighted, yet again, how ill-equipped our firefighting services are to deal with skyscraper crises.

Then Tuesday’s accident at Haifa’s oil refineries, which cost three lives, reminded those who need reminding that safety precautions aren’t optional recommendations for a huge facility on the doorstep of densely populated neighborhoods.

THE 34-storey Shalom Mayer Tower was Israel’s first skyscraper when inaugurated in 1965. It was then the Mideast’s tallest building and on par with Europe’s structures at the time. However, the Shalom Tower has since lost its distinction and now ranks only 12th in height among the country’s 45 skyscrapers, most of them in greater Tel Aviv. This means that dangers threatening the Shalom Tower are not unique to it alone.

Firefighters literally had an uphill task. With the electricity and elevators off, they had to scramble 29 flights up, carrying oxygen tanks and fire-fighting equipment.

Besides their own physical distress, the firemen also experienced difficulties in pumping water to such elevations.

The longest ladder in the entire country – and there’s only one – is 44-meters tall (reaching roughly 13 floors up). It’s estimated that nationally 45 more such ladders are needed, and even they couldn’t deal with skyscraper emergencies.

Israel also lacks about 250 fire-trucks, while many of the now in-service vehicles are antiquated. We also have less than 1,700 firemen nationwide when we need at least 2,000. Elsewhere in the West it’s one firefighter per 1,000 people. Our ratio is 1:5,000.

For decades there has been talk about equipping our fire-crews with amphibian planes capable of ferrying in water and dousing flames from above. Such planes aren’t only the answer for skyscrapers but also for the sort of brush fires that have decimated many Golan nature reserves in recent months. However, these planes are costly and each day that passes disaster-free is all too evidently another day that the expense can be put off and out-of-mind.

THE HAIFA-based Oil Refineries Ltd. (ORL) is Israel’s largest refinery. This state-of-the-art facility refines some 10 million tons of crude oil annually and produces a broad range of materials for manufacturing, transport, private consumption, agriculture and infrastructure.

This is heavy industry at its heaviest and its processes are complex and hazardous. It goes without saying that safety precautions are paramount, especially considering the ORL’s location.

Yet the men who did seasonal maintenance work on one of the gas facilities were personnel brought in by an external contractor. The ORL has no way of ascertaining how well briefed such outside workers are about safety procedures. Its control is bound to be relatively partial under such circumstances.

Precisely what happened and why these men took off their masks in a toxic setting is secondary. The bottom line is that the buck stops with the ORL higher-ups. If they don’t impose the most stringent discipline, any failures are ultimately their responsibility, even if the immediate fault is ascribed to an itinerant’s carelessness. It’s up to the upper echelons to make sure that there are no deviations from safety protocols.

This is essential not only for the general public and the environment but for ORL itself as it currently expands considerably, to the distinct displeasure of its neighbors and environmentalists. ORL expansion includes a catalytic regeneration plant and hydrogen facility, as well as a new $500 million, 25,000 barrel-a-day hydrocracker for diesel and jet-fuel production.

Haifa Bay’s giant is due to become much more gigantic in the near future. This heralds not only progress but also heightened safety concerns for the greater Haifa area.

ONE NEEDN’T be an alarmist to understand that either of the two recent incidents could have triggered major calamities with incalculable ramifications. That neither did was not because the system functioned flawlessly, but because of good fortune.

In each case we are dealing with eminently avoidable or reducible risks. Such risks must urgently be internalized and countered. We plainly cannot always count on good fortune.

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