They found the culprit. No, it's not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Interior Minister Eli Yishai. It's not even Fire Commissioner Shimon Romah. The blame lies with pro-market ideas that took hold of the country and the privatization policy driven by the treasury over the past 25 years. This is what dime-a-dozen politicians and commentators who jumped on the bandwagon say.
As far as they're concerned, the guilty ones are the "treasury boys," who didn't provide enough money to the fire service because they wanted it to be privatized. So the firefighters didn't have the proper equipment, and a disaster was only a matter of time.
It's unbelievable, because what's happening in the fire service is the complete opposite. No one at the treasury recommended privatizing the service. The complete opposite was recommended: total nationalization. The idea was to take 24 municipal firefighting associations operating under the loose control of the local authorities and the Interior Ministry, and combine them into one national fire service under the Public Security Ministry, similar to the police. This way, a professional, economical fire service could be built, and this has nothing to do with the privatization bogeyman.
There's no disputing that the fire service lacks fire trucks, advanced materials, logistics equipment and manpower. But pouring millions on those 24 municipal associations is an appalling waste because the current system is sick, ineffective and unmanaged. And if it gets the extra budget without going through reforms it will only become fatter, slower and more profligate.
The budget of the municipal fire associations is NIS 500 million a year. Some 80 percent of that goes to salaries, so only 10 percent is left for buying equipment. That's like a high-tech company paying good money to its workers but not giving them computers to use.
The chairman of the national firefighting association, Asi Levi - a member of the Likud Central Committee - is against uniting the 24 associations into one national authority. He says the head of every local association has a salary of NIS 50,000, an expensive SUV, a personal secretary and administrative powers. Who would agree to give that all up?
The fire service has become a fertile ground for the political appointment of Likud functionaries, and these are people no minister would dare confront. After all, they rule fates in the primaries. As for the firefighters' salaries, Levi says: "Even doctors don't make that much money; the entire budget goes to paychecks, and everyone ignores this."
As for the fire commissioner, Levi thinks he's a joke. Levi says Romah doesn't actually manage anything, "he can't tell a firefighter in the field to move a hose half a meter." The real boss is the chairman of the Union of Local Authorities, Shlomo Bohbot, so it's small wonder that Bohbot also opposes the reform. Another man against it is Ofer Eini, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation. He agrees for firemen to have salaries and work conditions like policemen, but he won't agree to give up the right to strike, as the police have done.
And because Yishai doesn't want to open a front with Eini, the reform of the fire service is stuck. So the great fear is that Netanyahu and Yishai will reach an agreement on channeling massive funds to the ailing fire service without a reform, to quell public criticism. After all, Netanyahu wants to avoid a state commission of inquiry, and Yishai wants the public to stop pressing him to resign.
A few days ago, a heavy snowstorm hit Scotland, paralyzing the national transportation network. Airports were closed, trains stopped and vehicles were stuck in the snow and ice. No commission of inquiry or state comptroller's report was necessary. Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson resigned immediately, writing in his resignation letter that he "could have done much more to ensure that members of the public were better informed of the situation."
But where are we and where is Scotland? Where's Stevenson's culture of government and where is Eli Yishai?
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