Firefighters in the South Launch Labor Sanctions Over Wage Cuts, Old Equipment

Firefighters in the southern region began labor sanctions this week, announcing they would not put out fires that are not life-endangering and not issue permits for events or the use of public facilities.

The firefighters are protesting wage cuts, inferior work conditions and old, ineffective equipment, which they say is hazardous to both their lives and the lives of possible fire victims.

"If a fire breaks out in one of the hotels on the Dead Sea coast we won't have the equipment to extinguish it. The way things are today, only a miracle can save people who are caught in the flames," said Tal Levy, a firefighter from the Tamar regional council in the Arava.

The firefighters accuse the chairman of the fire fighting association in the south, Eli Levy, of infringing on their rights and worsening their work conditions. In addition, they say health hazards have been found in the fire fighting depots.

"If a fire breaks out we have to fight it with a truck from 1975, which can hardly go on the road and whose function is ineffective. I don't know if its ladder even works or reaches the required height," Levy said. "Using a truck like that could endanger people's lives. In fact, the ladder on it is for appearances only, meant to soothe the conscience of the managers of the 14 hotels on the Dead Sea coast."

According to Levy, the ladder can reach a height of 30 meters at the most, while the hotels in the area are 60 and 70 meters high. "It means we can only reach the seventh floor. If there's a fire on the 15th floor we won't be able to save people," he said.

The firefighters have been demanding to relocate to another building, after three sinkholes opened near the Tamar fire fighting depot. The sinkholes could cause the depot's collapse. However, the council has not found an alternative place for them, they say. "It may sound strange, but we may soon have to call our colleagues to save us from a sinkhole," one firefighter said.

Firefighters from all the depots in the south, from the Arava region to Sderot in the central Negev, are participating in the sanctions. The firefighters will consider cranking up the sanctions if their demands are not met, they said.

"We are warning of danger to human life and we're sorry about the stalemate [in the talks]," said Lahav Haim Bar, a firefighters' union member.

Levy commented that all the Negev's local authorities, who are represented in the fire fighting services association - from Mizpeh Ramon to Arad and the Dead Sea, and from Eshkol to the Arava - decided to stop paying anything beyond the collective wage agreement. He said the treasury supports this move.

"As association chairman I am bound to carry out this decision and even more to preserve the public funds. In the past, decisions were made to pay wage increments against the law as a means of averting strikes by the firefighters," he said.