Bottom Shekel / When There's Smoke, There's Fire

Too bad about the fire truck.

Given that nobody actually died, or was hurt, the press could let itself have a field day with the fire that broke out at the top of Tel Aviv's Shalom Tower last week.

Editors amused themselves playing with themes along the lines of the 1970s horror flick "The Towering Inferno." In reality there was a bit of action, a bit of evacuation and smoke, and all ended well.

However, we can be pretty certain that had the fire broken out on a lower floor - say, the 20th, instead of the 29th, we would have had a real horror on our hands. In that event, there would have been dozens, if not hundreds, of people trapped on the floors above the fire and the country's firefighters would almost certainly not have been able to reach them.

Why? Because there is exactly one 44-meter ladder, which scales about 13 floors, in the land of Israel.

While ladders exist that could reach the 35th floor - 109 meters - our country doesn't have any.

As matters stand, Israel lacks ladders at standard lengths of up to 44 meters - the country's firefighters have 25 ladders, most of them dating from the 1970s. Fire Commissioner Shimon Romach says the force needs at least 45 ladders.

But why confine the complaint to ladders? What they're transported by is also questionable. Anyone who passed by the Shalom Tower that night would have seen dozens of fire trucks from all over Gush Dan. Only a few blared their sirens, even though the fire was definitely an emergency that would have justified the noise nuisance.

But for most of them, sirens would have been unnecessary, because in any case, they can't go more than 90 kilometers per hour.

Of the 520 fire engines that the country's fire stations are supposed to have, in practice there are only 400. Of that 400, about 100 are at least 20 years old, and their maximum speed is a function of that. Plus, at any given moment a third of the country's fire engines are out of service for technical reasons.

In other countries, for the record, fire engines are yanked off the roads after 10 to 12 years of service. Yet in Israel, about a quarter of the fleet is 20-plus, and no one is thinking of retiring those vehicles since they simply don't have a replacement.

And then there's the issue of the firefighters themselves. The country is supposed to have 1,950 firefighters but in practice has only 1,690. Romach says that the accepted international standard is one firefighter per 1,000 to 1,200 citizens, but in Israel that ratio is 1 per 7,000. And we're a hot country, at a risk of both earthquakes and war, and in need of firefighters as part of our emergency response team.

One station, two people and a single ladder

The shortage brings about absurdities. Forty of the country's fire stations have no more than two firefighters working any given shift. Two people who are supposed to be ready to meet any emergency situation as well as to fill all the standard tasks, such as giving businesses approval that they meet fire safety standards. Romach cites as an example the Dead Sea-Arad region, which despite its large area and the large number of hotels there, has all of one fire station, with two firefighters and a single ladder (from the 1970s, obviously ). It's unnecessary to point out that should there be a fire at one of the hotels, it would take a long time for other fire trucks to provide backup. It's unnecessary to point out that under such conditions, the two firefighters are getting very little training and practice time.

Even more absurd is that none of this is a secret. More precisely, all this has been written in large print on the wall since the 1960s, when the state comptroller published the first such report on the poor state of the country's firefighting services. Since then, state comptrollers have been publishing a similar report every three to four years.

Besides the state comptroller, there have been at least three public committees - in 1976, 1995 and 1998 - that addressed the state of the country's firefighting personnel, and all came to similar conclusions. The government hasn't been quick to respond, but in 2008 it decided to adopt the reform recommendations of the Ginosar Committee from 1998. Don't hold your breath, because that reform hasn't budged even an inch since them, and no one is expecting it to go anywhere, either, due to the objections of the firefighters' organization and the Histadrut labor federation over its terms.