Law and Order: Lessons learned?

Following Carmel fire report, firefighting authorities confident they're today better prepared.

Firefighter during Carmel fire 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Firefighter during Carmel fire 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss surpassed his own renowned levels of stern criticism this week when he released his damning report into what went wrong during the 2010 Carmel fire disaster.
Lindenstrauss listed one operational failure by firefighting authorities after another, placing special culpability for the failures that led up to the disaster on Interior Minister Eli Yishai and, more controversially, on Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.
Many, including politicians such Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Gal-on – by no means a fan of Steinitz – questioned Lindenstrauss’s decision to single out the finance minister. After all, they argued, since when is a finance minister directly responsible for the failings of a fire service? Lindenstrauss appears to have provided the answer in a series of not-so-subtle hints he inserted in the section on Steinitz. In essence, the state comptroller argued, Steinitz’s decision to withhold desperately necessary additional funding from firefighters until they went through with an efficiency reform plan meant that games were being played with the domestic emergency service that will prove most crucial during a future war.
“I am sure that the finance minister, a senior member of the government and the security cabinet, knew well that the firefighting and rescue service is the one of the most significant life-saving emergency elements in the country. The dangers posed to Israel in this field are heavy in bearing and very realistic.
There is no general security evaluation that does not raise in its agenda the topic of firefighting and rescue,” Lindenstrauss wrote in the report.
The hint here appears to be crystal clear. In any future major conflict (including a potential strike on Iran’s nuclear program), thousands upon thousands of rockets and missiles are expected to rain down on the Israeli home front. And it will be the Israel Fire and Rescue Service (the national firefighting management body) and its fire unions (regional fire stations funded jointly by local municipalities and the government) that will form the key internal response to rocket attacks on residential areas.
“This [the fire service] is a central and foremost element in the defense of the country and its citizens in the home front, and the front, during testing times. Failures on this issue endanger, without a shadow of a doubt, our security and defense,” the report continued, driving its point home. “The use of the term ‘war’ to signify the battle against a spreading fire… can also be used as an allegory for the state’s ability [to deal] with mass disasters as well as with a national emergency,” he added.
Lindenstrauss then took Steinitz to task for placing reforms, which included a demand that fire unions forfeit the right to hold strikes, as a “condition for equipping and upgrading the fire services.”
This, then, is the reason he decided to allot special responsibility to the finance minister.
Steinitz, for his part, dismissed the criticism as “hallucinatory,” deliberately choosing a strong term to signify his rejection of Lindenstrauss’s accusations. The Finance Ministry believes that to automatically throw money at an emergency service, without seeking an improvement in its structure and without addressing inefficiency and irregularities, is tantamount to budgetary suicide.
When it came to addressing the performance of the fire service, Lindenstrauss was no less sparing in his withering criticisms. He noted systemic failures by the fire service at every stage of the Carmel disaster’s first day, writing that firefighting authorities “showed up as the weakest link in the emergency services in Israel.”
Going even further, Lindenstrauss released a second report this week, analyzing the performance of the Fire and Rescue Service and fire unions in the six months that followed the disaster.
In it, he said that fire stations situated in areas that have high-rise buildings, train stations and industrial areas failed to train for scenarios involving the unique challenges of their locations. It seems clear that urban fire stations were singled out because of their vital role in a potential future armed conflict.
The good news, however, is that the state of the fire authorities has significantly improved since Lindenstrauss composed his report.
The Fire and Rescue Service has come under the jurisdiction of the Public Security Ministry, received a NIS 350 million cash injection, and begun a series of changes to bring it up to par with a modern firefighting authority, all under the watchful eye of a new commissioner, former senior policeman Shahar Ayalon.
Since 2010, 300 new firefighters have been recruited, a fleet of eight fire planes has been assembled and 1,600 tons of fire retardants are in stock. An advanced national control room exists at the Fire Service and Rescue’s Rishon Lezion headquarters. Eight new fire stations have been built and 89 new trucks have been purchased.
No less importantly, firefighting authorities are working to improve their command and control abilities at both national and local levels. The Public Security Ministry and the IDF Home Front Command created channels of communication to ensure that all emergency services can speak with one another during emergencies and coordinate efforts.
“We’re really not where we were in 2010,” Fire and Rescue Service spokesman Yoram Levi told The Jerusalem Post. “Most importantly, we have an aerial fleet. We also have a national operations center.
And we coordinate closely with other emergency services and the IDF Home Front Command.”
Levi said that if a similar fire were to break out in the Carmel today, “We would set up a joint operations center with Magen David Adom, the police and the IDF. The new model is already up and running. The days when the fire commissioner shows up alone at the scene of a blaze with just a cellphone are over.”
“Today we have regulations according to which a police helicopter transmits live images of the blaze, so we can see where it is going,” he added.
Similarly, the influx of 300 new firefighters and equipment has significantly improved the service’s abilities, he argued. “In some fire stations, we have 20 new firefighters – too many for shifts,” Levi said.
Asked to address the service’s readiness to tackle rocket attacks on built-up areas, Levi said there had been recognizable improvements.
“Urban rescue situations are simulated in basic [cadet] courses and fire station courses [for serving firefighters],” he said. “Once, there was no one responsible for training. Today we have a national training body that oversees this field. There are 23 stations that routinely train urban missions involving high-rise buildings,” he added.
The training sessions include using cranes that can reach high up into buildings and rescuing trapped individuals from burning buildings as well as from wreckage.
“We also have an emphases in prevention, such as installing sprinkler systems in all high-rise buildings,” Levi said.
He conceded, however, that “It’s never enough. There’s always room for more improvement.”
Much work remains for those building up Israel’s firefighting capabilities. But at least the cause has risen higher up in the national agenda. Today, funds and planning are being invested in the emergency service that was rightly identified by Lindenstrauss as the key to a successful domestic responses to potential future conflicts.