Before it’s too late

The Mount Carmel fire caught Israel unprepared. But it can serve as a wake-up call for other potential catastrophes.

Haifa Police Chief Dep.-Cmdr. Ahuva Tomer 311 (photo credit: Israel Police)
Haifa Police Chief Dep.-Cmdr. Ahuva Tomer 311
(photo credit: Israel Police)
The aftershocks of the fire on Mount Carmel are still reverberating. On Monday, Haifa Police chief Dep.-Cmdr. Ahuva Tomer succumbed to injuries she sustained Thursday, bringing the death toll in the disaster to 42. Frustration abounds, compounded by the fact that neglect of firefighting services was known to all, yet nothing was done about it.
Any future improvements in our firefighting capabilities will be too late for Tomer and the other victims.
But we must learn our lesson well. Israel’s unpreparedness in other fields is inviting the next tragedy.
Prevention is still an option.
The earthquake threat is a case in point. Israel is located on the Syrian African Rift that stretches from the Bekaa Valley in the North, passes through the Hula Valley into the Sea of Galilee and continues south through the Jordan Rift Valley to the Dead Sea. Every 80 years, on average, there is an earthquake of 6 or more on the Richter scale. The last one took place in 1927.
Yet Israel is surprisingly lax. On Monday, Dr. Avi Shapira, chairman of the interministerial steering committee for earthquake preparation, told Army Radio that his committee had no operating budget for 2011 due to infighting between the Treasury and the various ministries which are supposed to foot the costs. Buildings constructed before 1980 are not covered by Israel Standard 413, an internationally accepted building code designed to protect against earthquakes.
In 2005 Israel passed “Tama 38,” a nationwide program to reinforce older residential buildings that includes various incentives such as state-subsidized renovations and room additions in exchange for agreeing to participate. Yet a lack of advertising has resulted in a lackluster response. Shapira estimated that only a few dozen buildings had been revamped so far.
During a January discussion in the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee following the Haiti earthquake, Ya’acov Bar-Lavi of the Survey of Israel Center said that of 650,000 structures in the country, there are 96,000 residential buildings in danger of collapsing in the event of a massive earthquake.
ANOTHER DISASTER in the making is the dilapidated state of our hospitals. Experts are split on which is worse: the dearth of hospital beds or the lack of medical staff available to help the sick get in and out of the hospital as quickly as possible.
According to a recent study for the Knesset, only Mexico has fewer hospital beds than Israel among OECD countries. In Israel, there are only 1.98 hospital beds per 1,000 residents, compared to 8.2 in Japan and 5.7 in Germany. Internal medicine departments are chronically overcrowded, and two-thirds of ventilated patients in general hospitals are treated in ordinary wards rather than in the over-crowded intensive care units.
Due to the “hot bed” policy, hospitalization is only four days on average compared to 19 days in Japan, 8.2 days in Switzerland and 7.5 in Britain. Only in Mexico is the average – 3.9 days – shorter. As a result, the sick do not heal properly and need to return more frequently.
Various Health Ministry plans to expand the number of hospital beds have been met by Treasury opposition.
AIRPORT SAFETY is another area of concern. In November, Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of the International Air Transport Association, chastised Israel for failing to upgrade its US Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) International Aviation Safety Assessment ranking from Category 2 to Category 1. “Israel has been in Category 2 for far too long. It is a national embarrassment. Moreover, it is a costly situation for Israel’s reputation and for the financial health of its carriers,” Bisignani said at a press conference in Tel Aviv.
In December 2008, the FAA downgraded Israel’s safety rating following an assessment of the country’s Civil Aviation Authority and in particular its regulation of light, private and sports aviation. Bisignani also highlighted the urgent need for Israel to designate an alternative to Ben-Gurion Airport for handling operational irregularities.
THE MOUNT Carmel fire caught Israel unprepared. But it can serve as a wake-up call for other potential catastrophes.
The lives of Tomer and the other 41 victims might have been saved “only if.” But if we deign to learn our lesson and prevent other potential dangers before it is too late, their loss will not be for naught.