Year after Carmel blaze, planned upgrades to fire service stalled
Under the proposed reform, fire services would be reorganized: Instead of 24 autonomous local fire departments, departments would be subordinated to seven district administrations.
A year after one of Israel's deadliest blazes ripped through Carmel, a planned reform of the fire services still is going nowhere.
In January 2011, the cabinet decided that the country's firefighting services would be totally revamped by the end of 2012. The decision included transferring responsibility for the services from the Interior Ministry to the Public Security Ministry.
But the Public Security Ministry has not yet even begun negotiations with the firefighters union on the proposed changes. Only recently did the sides agree on a mediator - Yossi Cucik, a former director general of the Prime Minister's Office - and the parties have yet to hold a single meeting.
Moreover, though the ministry was supposed to have passed the necessary legislation in the Knesset by October 2011, in reality, a draft bill has not even been circulated to the relevant government ministries for comment.
The reform is meant to improve coordination between police and firefighters by putting both rescue services under the same ministry, and to put firefighters on a par with policemen - which could potentially include both better pay and a ban on striking. Another goal of the reform is to improve coordination among the various local fire departments by subordinating them all to the Public Security Ministry rather than to the local authorities, which in turn are overseen by the Interior Ministry.
The cabinet decision also gave the existing fire services NIS 100 million for urgent shortfalls revealed by the fire and promised another NIS 150 million once the reform got underway.
Meanwhile, however, the reform has stalled, and the firefighters union remains deeply suspicious of it. This week, the union even hired a public relations agent to aid it in what it sees as a battle for the firefighters' rights.
Union chairman Yoav Gadesi charged on Wednesday that the Public Security Ministry is "already making decisions" before meeting with firefighters. This is a violation of the cabinet decision, which requires that these issues be discussed with the firefighters."
In particular, he said, the union wants assurances on issues such as staffing levels, salaries and pensions, as well as a thorough discussion of what the fire services "really need in order to protect the public."
Under the proposed reform, fire services would be reorganized much like those of the police: Instead of autonomous 24 local fire departments, the departments would be subordinated to seven district administrations. But the firefighters aren't convinced this structure is appropriate.
Gadesi argued that the seven district administrations would be "unnecessary fat."
"They're going to turn the fire services into a government office with administrators instead of firefighters," he warned. "In many places worldwide, there's a firefighter for every 1,000 residents; in Israel, the ratio is one firefighter for every 10,000 residents. Firefighters are still going into the field without backup."
The Carmel fire did push the government to increase the number of firefighters: Some 300 new hires are now being trained, and another 200 are due to be hired and trained next year. The government also set up an aerial firefighting squadron and ordered 84 new fire trucks.
But the fire departments say they are still short on manpower and equipment. The Haifa fire department, for instance, serves a high-risk area, but it says it still lacks water tankers and protective suits for use in fighting forest fires. As a result, said Haifa fireman Gideon Leib, the firefighters risk their lives every day.
Hezi Levy, who served as the firefighters' public face during the Carmel fire, said the proposed changes are headed "in the right direction," and that the impact of some of them can already be felt in his department. The new aerial squadron will be a particularly important change for the better, he said.
Nevertheless, he added, a major reform such as the kind the government is proposing can't be effected overnight. "This is a revolution that will take a year or a year and a half," he said.
"When I ask myself, 'What if a fire of the same magnitude broke out tomorrow under the same weather conditions?' I say that perhaps we'd do better, but not a lot," he said.
Levy, 43, is no longer the Haifa fire department's spokesman; he is deputy commander of the Western Galilee fire service and also commands the training course for new recruits. He said he is still "angry that a disaster had to occur for the state to understand" the services' problems. "Did 44 people need to die so that they would pay attention to us?" he charged.
Still, he says he remains optimistic about the future.
"I believe that two years from today, we won't say we're short of anything or that salaries haven't arrived on time - if the current trend continues," he said. "Just as long as they don't stop in the middle."
קראו כתבה זו בעברית: שנה אחרי השריפה בכרמל ואין עדיין רפורמה במערך הכבאות