Even as a state comptroller's report on the last major fire is expected imminently, firefighters in Sderot say that without a manpower increase, the next disaster is just a matter of time.
The Sderot fire station has all of two firefighters working every shift, who must try to cover a sprawling area that includes four local and regional councils. But according to Avi Hayoun, who has been a fireman for 27 years, that's an improvement: For nine years, he worked shifts by himself.
"We have a terrible manpower problem," Hayoun said. "We're two people on every shift. If we have two incidents at one time, we simply can't respond" to both.
The Sderot fire station serves the city plus the Sha'ar Hanegev, Yoav, and Hof Ashkelon regional councils - a total of 50,000 people. In Western countries, the accepted ratio is one firefighter on duty for every 1,000 people. The Sderot station has one for every 25,000.
"According to Fire and Rescue Service regulations, there are meant to be five firefighters on duty per shift, and in Sderot, because of the security situation, the manpower shortage is acutely felt," Hayoun said, referring to the frequent rocket launches from nearby Gaza. "Sometimes we get help from firefighters in Ashkelon, but arrival time is critical, and it's liable to cost lives."
There have been times when, after a road accident, "I've had to saw open the car by myself and also pull out the bodies," he added.
Oded Alfasi, a Sderot firefighter for 15 years, said the station received new equipment after the Carmel fire disaster in 2010, but no new firefighters.
"We recently got a new fire truck, so now we have two," he said. "But we don't have anyone to operate them."
"There are a lot of factories here that deal with dangerous chemicals, like ammonia," Alfasi added. "If a fire broke out in one of those factories, we wouldn't be able to handle it."
Despite its location, he added wryly, the fire station isn't even reinforced against missile attacks.
Firefighters' union chief Yoav Gadasi said a pending bill to reorganize the fire services doesn't adequately address the manpower problem.
"Fortunately, the Public Security Ministry has asked us to sit with them to discuss problems that are endangering residents' lives," he said. "If these problems are not resolved before the bill is submitted, the next comptroller's report won't be any different from this one."
Yigal Zohar, acting commander of the Ashkelon-Ashdod fire station, which oversees the area of Sderot, said the manpower assigned to each fire station is determined by the station's volume of activity. "The Fire and Rescue Service is planning to hire more firefighters to join the 28 hired this past year, and they will be assigned to the small stations," he promised.
As for the Sderot station not being missile-proof, Zohar said the station was built before Israel's war with Hamas in Gaza in late 2008, but it does have a shelter, "which provides a response to missile fire."
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