Unsung Heroes

Understaffed and underequipped, our fire departments work under severe constraints to save life and limb.

Fire department 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Fire department 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How often we take our life-saving public services for granted - until we need them. Omer Sacks found himself in that situation some months ago when driving to visit his parents in Kochav Yair. He was hit head on by a speeding vehicle that crossed over to his side of the road while recklessly overtaking him. Twenty-one year-old Sacks would spend the next month at Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba undergoing numerous operations. He was lucky. Adjacent to the hospital stands an unpretentious building. Were it not for the bright red vehicles protruding from its large doors, few passers-by would suspect that it houses the Sharon Fire Fighter's Department. One of the station's new First Responders was the first emergency vehicle to arrive at the scene of Sacks's accident. At a recent ceremony attended by Kfar Saba mayor Yehuda Ben-Hamu, Fire and Rescue Commissioner Shimon Romach, former MK Shaul Yahalom and the Sacks family (Omer's father, Solly, is the director of World Mizrachi) tributes were paid to the "exemplary service" of the fire fighters "under nerve-wracking pressure." Fire fighter Roi Cohen told Metro how he maneuvered through the mangled metal as best he could. "There was so much blood spurting that it was blurring my vision. It was touch and go as to whether to amputate Omer's leg in the car, as we couldn't allow him to lose too much blood," said Cohen. Using the jaws of life, they managed just in time to cut through the crumpled amalgam of steel and wiring that was pegging down his leg. South African-born Sacks survived, limbs intact. "They saved my son whole!" exclaimed Gita, Omer's very grateful mother. Others are not always so lucky - and a lack of public awareness and support is partly to blame. Eldad Halachmi is the director-general of Friends of Israel Firefighters (FIF), a non-profit organization established in 2003 by a group of concerned citizens. Their aim is to increase appreciation for the services provided by Israel's firemen and to raise funds for urgently needed equipment and facilities for the country's fire and rescue services. The founding members of FIF read like a who's-who of Israeli society. Some 45 mayors nationwide joined Shabtai Shavit, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Avigdor Kahalani among others in responding to a call from FIF chairman David Magen, a former MK and chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "The stature of these supporters helps profile an issue that shamefully is far removed from the minds of most people until a crisis affects them directly," says Halachmi. Ask Sacks, or even more recently Cyril Morris, who two weeks ago was rescued with his wife, Reva, from their fifth-floor apartment on Rehov Rambam in Ra'anana. It was one of the worst apartment block fires in Ra'anana in years. A short circuit in an electric box quickly spread, and the stairway was ablaze. The entire high-rise had to be evacuated. "They first placed a ladder at our window and asked if we were able to climb down. In my heyday, that would have been easy," says Morris, who was an outstanding rugby player in his youth in South Africa and is known in Israel as Mr. Rugby due to his long association with the local game. However, at 83 - his wife is 81 - they declined the offer and opted for the new fire engine with a crane that was parking adjacent to the building. "At our age we prefer to travel in style," chuckles Morris. What would have happened had there been no fire engine with a crane? Fire and Rescue Commissioner Romach and the FIF have been busy over the past few years equipping the service with modern apparatus, but they have a long way to go. The fire department is underfunded, understaffed, inadequately equipped and dispassionately dismissed by the public as a background service provider. Nevertheless, they are usually the first to arrive at the scene, whether a fire, terror attack, building collapse or car accident. Only two weeks ago they were the first to arrive at the tragic train collision at the Beit Yehoshua railway crossing where five passengers lost their lives. "There could have been a lot more fatalities," says Halachmi. "It was the firefighters who cut through the overturned coaches sandwiched one atop another. Were it not for their expertise, many more lives would have been lost, yet the TV reports and newspaper coverage hardly mentioned them. Most media exposure was reserved for Magen David Adom (MDA), ambulances from the various hospitals and the police. We were there but not there," says an exasperated Halachmi. Ignoring the role of our firefighters is standard fare in Israel, in sharp contrast to the respect citizens in other counties bestow upon theirs. Revered in many other countries as heroes, it is no wonder that kids fantasize "When I'm big, I'm going to be a fireman." Hollywood reinforces this image. Movies like the blockbuster The Towering Inferno and Ron Howard's Backdraft contribute to a society's support for an entrenched image of their men and women donning strange hats who slide down poles into their red fire trucks. In the aftermath of 9/11, firefighters in the US are one of the most revered of their public service providers. In this sense, Israel is out of step. While the US erects monuments to their firefighters, the government here reduces its budget. Halachmi cites the example that at the beginning of the intifada "there was a worldwide fundraising campaign launched in association with the Jewish Agency to raise money for essential services that were likely to take strain. The MDA, ZAKA and many other services received financial support as expected, but the fire department - nothing." As one senior official told them, "You were not on the list." Since its inception, the FIF has focused on fundraising for new fire engines. In the US and Western Europe, according to Halachmi, there is roughly one firefighter to 1,000 residents. In Israel, with some 1,200 firefighters, the ratio is roughly one to 6,000. "Even for our low number of personnel, we are shamefully underequipped - and much of our equipment is antiquated," laments Halachmi. "Many of the fire stations around the country have such old fire engines that they are embarrassed to turn on their sirens." Halachmi was not joking. Before Arad received its new fire truck sponsored by Britain's UJA, the one they had been using was fine to drive down to the Dead Sea but could not return without first emptying its water. Underpowered, it was unable to chug up the hill. It has been no less an uphill battle for the FIF, but they can be proud of their achievements. In two and a half years, they have raised some $4 million. "Initially Ron Lauder, president of the JNF in the US, got the ball rolling, and now Jewish families and organizations across North America have joined the campaign," says Halachmi. One donation from Toronto tells a story. "Eilat, with its tall hotels and high residential complexes, needed a fire engine with a crane and ladder that can reach a height of 42 meters. The closest one was in Beersheba," says Halachmi. "The truck cost $850,000 and the government was only prepared to contribute if the balance could be matched elsewhere. The UJA Federation of Toronto came through, and the fire truck arrived in August 2004." This vehicle was used two months later by Eilat's firefighters in their life-saving response to the terror attack in Taba in Egypt. "The hotel stairway had collapsed, and it was the ladder that initially provided essential light in the darkness caused by the explosion," explains Halachmi. "It also enabled people on the verge of suffering heart attacks to be rescued. People were trapped in their rooms; and while many were not in physical danger, they could have died from heart attacks brought on by anxiety." While fire stations everywhere are in need of refurbishment or expansion, the most pressing need, says Halachmi, "is to have 100 First Responders spread across the country." These are compact and highly mobile vehicles ideal for narrow streets and alleys, and excellent for fighting forest fires, as they have a four-wheel drive that allows access to areas inaccessible to other vehicles. Commissioner Romach says these vehicles can provide a relatively economic solution to the most urgent needs of the Fire & Rescue Services. Manufactured in Wisconsin, they cost about $100,000 each. So far there are 20 in Israel - one of which saved Omer Sacks - and 15 are on order, funded by money raised by FIF. "Thirteen Rapid Responders have been funded from donations from LA, while Chicago has sponsored two - one for Kiryat Gat and another for Bnei Brak," says Halachmi. "We have built an excellent relationship with Toronto, following their fire engine's performance in the Taba terror attack. They added a Rapid Responder for Eilat." Halachmi cites two areas - Misgav in the north and the Arava in the south - where the needs were most pressing and how Jewish communities around the world literally came to the rescue. "The trouble started around the Arab village of Sachnin some years ago. Arson took root as a form of terrorism in the area. The region is densely forested with JNF trees, symbolically representing the Jewish connection with the land. This is understood by the enemies of the state and has been a prime target. While summer heat is still the primary cause, it is estimated by experts that close to 50% of forest fires are caused by arsonists. The crazy thing was that while Misgav had a quaint little fire station, something was startlingly missing - they did not have a fire engine," says Halachmi. That is now history thanks to the Jewish Federations of Pittsburgh and Houston. The Arava presented a different problem - the alarming number of accidents on the stretch of road running from Beersheba to Eilat. It began when the Dimona fire chief called Halachmi and said, "We have terrible accidents here and need fast vehicles that are strategically placed so they don't take long to arrive at an accident." He assured Halachmi that a study had been conducted that showed that some 50% of fatalities could have been averted if they had vehicles like the Rapid Responder, equipped with the jaws of life that saved Omer Sacks near Kochav Yair. "Thanks to success in the US and the UK, five Rapid Responders have been purchased for Eilat, Arad, Yerucham, Sderot and Kiryat Gat," says Halachmi. "We still, however, need another 20." Compounding the problem of local funding is the fire department's antiquated structure. There are 25 regional departments throughout Israel, each a fiefdom unto itself. This complicates the process of state funding. Despite numerous recommendations from government-initiated investigations, little has been done. "Commissioner Romach is doing a great job, but he's like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. Since assuming the position he has been through five interior ministers. Now he has Ronnie Bar-On, who is responsible for 240 municipalities, many in grave financial circumstances," says Halachmi. The support from Jewish communities around the world is irreplaceable. One of the first countries Halachmi began working with was South Africa. "I had just started with FIF and heard there were representatives from the Beare Foundation in Durban wanting to visit our small fire station in Ramla. They arrived with a delegation from Keren Hayesod. Alex Rogov, representing the Beare family, said, "What do you need?" The result was a donation of $400,000 from the Beare Foundation in partnership with Keren Hayesod for a new wing to the Ayalon fire station servicing Lod, Ramla, Shoham, Modi'in and environs, including the vast Ben-Shemen forest. This is a busy fire station. No less busy is the committed FIF director, working the phone to all hours of the morning, most days of the week. "I feel like someone screaming for help from a building on fire," says Halachmi. To learn more about the Friends of Israel Firefighters (FIF), visit www.foif.org