Firefighters to Get NIS 300m More - but Only With Reforms

Interior Minister Eli Yishai says the amount of funding is not final and another significant sum will be needed for the aerial firefighting force.

Israel's fire services will receive an additional NIS 300 million budget for buying equipment and expanding the force next year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz agreed on the move yesterday - but with conditions. The two also agreed on another NIS 50 million to lease firefighting aircraft quickly.

Fire trucks- Gil Eliyahu
Gil Eliyahu

The move for additional funding will be brought before the cabinet in two weeks - but only after the planning is completed for reforms including organizational changes that will allow a national firefighting force to be set up.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the amount of funding is not final and another significant sum will be needed for the aerial firefighting force.

"As reports by the state comptroller haven grown in recent years, and examinations of government ministries have increased, I regret there has been a paralysis in decision making in everything related to correcting the [failures described in] comptrollers' reports," said Yishai at a conference of internal auditors yesterday. He said a new mechanism was needed to suggest rule changes, one that would solve the problem of a lack of decision making.

Firefighters demand right to unionize

Meanwhile, the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee held a session on the proposed law to establish a new national authority for firefighting. The committee is preparing the bill for its first reading in the Knesset. The committee will continue working on the legislation next week.

Firefighters' representatives told the committee they objected to a number of the proposed changes, including the intention to take away their right to unionize and strike, as well as the transferring of responsibility for the fire services from the Interior Ministry to the Public Security Ministry. The firefighters said the Interior Ministry is a civilian ministry while the Public Security Ministry is part of the defense establishment.

Shimon Romah, Israel's fire and rescue commissioner, gave his support for the new law in principle. But the chairman of the national firefighters' organization, Yoav Gadasi, said firefighters have lost their faith in Romah and do not intend to negotiate with him on the future of Israel's fire service.

Gadasi said the attitude toward firefighters has changed in just a few days; only a few days ago everyone loved them. "We have stopped cooperating with the fire commissioner, who has finished serving in his post as far as we are concerned," said Gadasi. He said the past eight years have led nowhere, and only when a new fire commissioner is appointed will firefighters resume cooperation.

He said all attempts to wear down the firefighters and end their right to unionize would fail. "We paid a heavy price with our blood, we fought the flames. We warned and spoke and no one paid any attention," said Gadasi.

"The whole time things were stuck because of the treasury's objections to the section of the law about the right to unionize. The one negotiating and sitting [at the negotiating table] is the union that represents 1,500 firefighters," he said. Gadasi added that the firefighters' efforts have been coordinated with the Histadrut labor federation.

Romah, who attended the committee session, did not argue with Gadasi. Romah said he agreed to support the bill through its first reading and get the reform started. When the bill reaches its second and third readings, he will discuss the details.

MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism ) recommended that the firefighters set up a team to take part in the discussions on the bill, and to use the Carmel fire to make real changes now.

A representative of the Prime Minister's Office said the firefighters will be partners in advancing the new law.

Hatehof workers shut down plant

The workers at the Hatehof plant in Upper Nazareth, which makes fire trucks and other firefighting vehicles, went on strike because they have not been paid. Workers have shut down the factory and barricaded the gates until they receive their full wages, they said. Hatehof employees say they have not been paid for a month and a half, and management has not paid into their pension plans for six months.

Hatehof's 100 workers did receive a NIS 2,000 payment yesterday as part of unpaid wages, but the Histadrut is continuing to pressure management to pay back wages in full.

Hatehof has run up debts of NIS 140 million, and workers are afraid the company will close, said Histadrut representative Leon Peretz. He said the workers would have a hard time finding other jobs if Hatehof went out of business. Peretz also called Hatehof a "critical factory that manufactures armored vehicles and fire trucks for the defense establishment."

Management said it is trying its hardest to guarantee all the workers' financial rights.