Israeli Fire Department Collector Rescues Mementos From Flames of History

'We’re a fighting unit, just like Golani and the Paratroops. We too have a heritage to be proud of,' says Lior Tehrani.

Lior Tehrani with a number of the items he has salvaged for posterity.
Moti Milrod

In the wake of the 2010 Carmel fire and reform in firefighting services, attempts are being made to bolster pride in the organization. For this purpose there are plans for building a museum – but until this happens one officer is collecting old fire engines and other items such as orchestral instruments, found in markets or garbage bins.

“We’re a fighting unit, just like Golani and the Paratroops. We too have a heritage to be proud of,” says firefighter Lior Tehrani, an expert in handling hazardous materials who in recent years has also been documenting the history and heritage of firefighting in Israel – which can also be a hazardous endeavor.

Among the fire engines waiting to rush off at the Reading fire station in Tel Aviv sits “Meira,” who, although just having turned 80, is hard to keep one’s eyes off. In 1935, when she arrived from London, she was the latest word in technology, and was named not by coincidence after the city’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff.

“There are only three or four other fire trucks like her around the world today,” says Tehrani.

One hundred twenty years after the first firefighting station was established in Israel, and 90 years after the establishment of a national network, Meira is in good shape. Other old fire trucks which, like her, have gone out of service, were abandoned across the country, without any measure of preservation. Tehrani sweeps across the country in his search for these, based on reports from citizens with a sense of history who come across them, photograph them and post them on the Facebook page he created for this purpose, called “The history of Israeli firefighting.”

“We find them in kibbutzim, in moshavim (communal farms), along roadsides and in the yards of firefighting stations,” he says. “These rusty vehicles have a soul.” He sends some of them to garages that specialize in reconstruction and preservation. In a few years, when the Israeli firefighting museum is built in Rishon Letzion, these will turn from old wrecks into historical exhibits.

The renewed interest shown by firefighters in their heritage is part of a reform the organization has been going through, following the severe shock it suffered during the 2010 Carmel fire. The disaster, the largest of its kind in Israel, cost the lives of 44 people and included the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes. The state comptroller later identified many flaws, defects and failures in procedures followed by the service. The public image of this veteran organization was seriously damaged, with pictures of aging fire trucks that should have been in a museum rushing forth to fight the flames in the Carmel forest.

Now, with the completion of the reform in firefighting services, which included the establishment of a national authority for firefighting and emergency services, subordinate to the Public Security Ministry, the organization has the time to delve into its past to find archival gems that could bolster the organization’s pride.

“It’s sad to admit it but I find a lot in garbage bins at firefighting stations across the country. Until recently the organization had no conception of preserving its heritage and history,” says Tehrani.

Taking over 'heritage file'

He joined the service in 1991, right after the Gulf War. Since then he’s been commanding field operations. In recent years he’s become enamored with history and taken on the organization’s “heritage file.” This week he also became the organization’s spokesman in the Greater Tel Aviv area.

His office is an improvised museum with seminal documents, such as operational logbooks starting from the War of Independence, as well as rare photos, such as the ones documenting an exercise held in Tel Aviv in 1944, which included show jumping by firefighting motorcycles as well as the extinguishing of fire bombs dropped by light planes.

He bought a few items in flea markets and second-hand stores. This is how he acquired a dictionary of firefighting terms, published in 1947, which helped him understand some of the items he saw in old photos. When asked about the most important item he found he takes out an old ax. “This served a forgotten hero,” he says, telling about Abba Cohen, who volunteered for firefighting in Czarist Russia, establishing Tel Aviv’s firefighting unit in 1925 after a major flood.

Abba Cohen’s first years weren’t easy – firefighters were mocked and ridiculed when the municipality gave them a truck with a big barrel of water on top. There were so many holes in it that the water ran out before they reached the blaze. In other cases it wasn’t filled before the firemen rushed off to a fire.

Tehani also found some of the instruments used by the renowned firefighters’ orchestra, established in 1935, becoming part of Tel Aviv life by playing at almost all events.

A book in Tehrani’s possession came out in 1975, on the 50th anniversary of Tel Aviv’s firefighting services, containing abundant information on the history of these services in Israel. It turned out that a fire in Baron Rothschild’s winery in Zichron Yaakov led to the establishment of the first station 120 years ago. The equipment came from Paris. The station was abandoned in 1900, with the first firefighters determined to be totally unprepared although highly motivated. This may have had something to do with one of their exercises thoroughly soaking expensive furniture and a piano at Rothschild’s offices.