It was well-known long before last week that the firefighting service in Israel had serious deficiencies. Nonetheless a succession of government agencies, prime ministers and ministers of the interior and of finance failed to deal with the situation. A review of state comptroller reports, recommendations from professional investigative committees, deliberations by Knesset committees and correspondence among agencies all testify to the fact everyone foresaw such a catastrophe, but very little was done to head it off.The firefighting service faced two primary difficulties – meager funding and a problematic organizational structure. Its relatively small budget has been felt, of course, in the scope of its operations, the amount of equipment at its disposal and the quality of the resources. Half of the service’s budget is provided by the state through the Interior Ministry. Another 35 percent is chipped in from local authorities and the remaining 15 percent comes from revenue the service generates.
In practice, however, less is actually put to use. Many approved firefighter positions go unfilled, and budgets for vehicles go unused because the full budget is not actually transferred to the fire service.
Many payments from local authorities are delayed, due to the organization’s structure. The service lacks a clear national hierarchy and many local and regional fire agencies act independently, frequently at the direction of the local authorities that fund them.
When asked who was to blame for the current state of the service, its former commissioner, Uri Manos, said every Israeli government is responsible. “It hasn’t been a priority at all for interior ministers, not just [current minister] Eli Yishai. Firefighting simply hasn’t interested them,” he said.
The problems were considered over the years at 28 sets of hearings by various Knesset committees, focusing primarily on the funding issues. Over and over, terms such as “collapse” and “disaster” peppered the discussion. All the problems were raised, however, including lack of personnel, old equipment, and problems involving firefighting aircraft.
As far back as the year 2000, the chairman of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, David Azoulay, who also currently chairs the committee, said: “The state of the fire service at this time borders on scandalous.” But the condition of the fire service simply got worse.
Israel currently has about 1,300 firefighters available for operational duty, meaning one for every 6,000 residents. The average among Western countries is one firefighter per 1,000 residents.
The fire service suffered a notable blow in 2003, when the air force asked that the Yisur, or sea stallion helicopters, as they are known in English, not be used for firefighting duties out of concern that heat and flames and smoke caused damage to the aircraft. The fire service then resorted to using planes from a private company, Chim-Nir.
The strongest warning signals were actually sounded back in the summer of 1995, when a giant blaze broke out in the Jerusalem hills near Sha’ar Hagai, the largest forest fire in the history of the state at that point. It consumed 20,000 dunams and burned 31 homes. Dozens of people sustained light injuries from smoke inhalation, and the interior minister at the time, David Libai, called for a committee of investigation. Reserve Major General Amos Lapidot was appointed to head the panel, which found that “the state of the fire service is far from satisfactory.” The committee recommended strengthening overall command of the service in connection with large fires, creating a firefighting school, allowing firefighters to retire at 55, upgrading aging equipment, establishing 10 stations to fight forest fires, improving the ability to fight fires from the air and giving the service increased budgets and staffing, among other suggestions.
Most of the recommendations, however, were never implemented. Almost all of the committee’s findings, prompted by the 1995 fire, describe the situation in 2010. The Lapidot committee concluded: “The system is not properly equipped to deal appropriately with fires that are large and of sizable magnitude.”
In July of this year, the government allocated NIS 100 million to deal with the deficiencies in the fire service. It also set a deadline of 2012 for the establishment of a national fire service.