Carmel fire bus
Bus trapped in Carmel wildfire, Dec. 2, 2010. Photo by Dan Oren.
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The State Comptroller's report on Israel's fire services is gaining much public attention in the wake of last week's Carmel catastrophe. The reality depicted in the report, however, reveals that much greater risks weigh in the balance. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss focuses on the probability that fire services could literally collapse if faced with rocket attacks against Israel's cities in wartime. In that case, emergency services would have to deal with multiple mass-casualty events taking places at the same time and on multiple fronts – without the possibility of amassing fire teams from different regions to one spot, as was the case with the Carmel wildfire.

The State Comptroller describes fire services as the weakest link in Israel's civilian emergency forces, but a closer look at his conclusions suggests that that may be a polite phrasing of the fire services' real situation. The report reveals significant gaps across the board: not enough firefighters, outdated and insufficient equipment, and antique fire trucks. The number of administrators has actually increased in recent years, as the number of real highlighters dropped. The report finds that: the firefighters' training track is inadequate, saying the National School for Fire and Rescue Services could not facilitate sufficient training exercises; the Fire and Rescue Services' command does not have a functional headquarters as is without an appropriate command and control array; the radio network is antiquated, while computing systems just don't exist. Coordination with the Israel Defense Forces' Home Front Command wasn't a strong point either.

The practical significance of all of the above is that fire services could collapse under pressure, putting civilian lives at risk. This time, the State Comptroller doesn't hold back on harsh words. "The situation is insufferable," he writes. The discrepancies are severe and the fire services are a bottleneck that could injure the rescue forces as a whole.

The firefighters are indeed a critical link. A volley of rockets exploding into Israel's population concentrations could start fires in city centers and topple multistory buildings. Under these circumstances, the debate on whether Israel should or shouldn’t acquire a fire-fighting plane would simply be irrelevant. Even an effective deployment of the other emergencies forces, which have undergone a significant upgrade in recent years, would be useless if the IDF's rescue brigades or Magen David Adom paramedics would not be able to enter burning disaster scenes as a result of an insufficient number of fire trucks. It would be like a team of doctors arriving at a surgery having forgotten to call for an anesthesiologist.

The bus incident, as well as the question why firefighters weren't called as soon as preliminary reports of a fire in Isfiya came in, call for a separate investigative report, but a look at the Comptroller's Report is a harrowing enough affair. The report should disturb the sleep of every citizen, more so if he resides in a big city.

The current report was conceived during the Second Lebanon War. A severe 2007 report on the actions of civilian emergency crews spurred us to keep an open eye on the situation of those forces. Last time around, the State Comptroller spoke of the failure of a governing theory. This time, the report reads as if there was never a war here at all, or at least as if the Interior Ministry (which failed fours years ago as well) did nothing to learn from that war's lessons.

As could be expected, politicians reacted with an obedient gratitude to the report, with a promise to improve. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has been conducting himself this week as if basing himself on a "guide for leaders during crisis," promised an immediate implementation of the report. Interior Minister Eli Yishai was quick to point out that the report completely exonerates him. It seems that, at best, Yishai was showing selective reading skills. It is true that, as of May of this year, he had started working on the matter following an especially severe warning from Lindenstrauss. But since the government's July decision to add funds (a decision which has yet to be implemented) Yishai had done nothing.

Following the funerals and the eulogies, only two major questions remain: Will the politicians listen to the waning bells struck by the State Comptroller this time and what will be the political implications of the failure of previous governments, Likud and Kadima?