Watchdog Report Into Fire Services: Government Abandoned Its Citizens

Report by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss says national fire services are liable to collapse in an emergency.

Not only have the fire services not improved since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, they have gotten worse - to the point where they are liable to collapse in an emergency, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss wrote in a blistering report issued yesterday .

Moreover, he warned, a breakdown of the fire services would impair other rescue services' ability to do their jobs, leading to loss of both life and property.

yishai - Haaretz - December 9 2010

"Most of the lessons of the Second Lebanon War were not learned," wrote the comptroller, who had highlighted the fire services' problems in a 2007 report on home front preparedness in that war. "The problems were not corrected, and once again it is possible to blame lack of coordination between government agencies [and] foot-dragging by those responsible for dealing with the matter."

His 2007 report cited shortages of human resources, equipment, fire stations and training. Since then, things have gotten worse.

Israel has only 1.6 firefighters per 10,000 residents, about a quarter of the international norm, which is 6 per 10,000, he wrote. Moreover, while the number of budgeted firefighter positions rose by over 10 percent in 2006-2009, 263 positions remain unfilled. While the services did increase their administrative staffing levels, the number of firefighters actually declined.

There are too few fire stations, and they are poorly distributed around the country. As for fire trucks, the fire services officially have 519, all less than 20 years old. In reality, it has only 442, of which only 349 are less than 20 years old. The Israel Fire and Rescue Commission complained repeatedly to the Interior Ministry about this, but nothing was done.

Communications equipment and computers are also lacking: No national computer system links the local fire departments, while fire trucks must communicate with each other and the fire stations using antiquated devices capable of using only a few frequencies. Thus in a major incident like last week's Carmel fire, these frequencies can get so crowded that communication is severely limited. Yet the commission has never even drafted specifications for what computer and communications equipment is needed so that it can ask the government for funding.

Nor, despite repeated requests, has the Interior Ministry ever discussed establishing a new firefighters' training school.

The ministry repeatedly gave the Finance Ministry comprehensive budget proposals covering all the services' needs. But only in May 2010 did it finally submit a narrower funding request to cover the most urgent needs, which had a better chance of approval.

The treasury, for its part, refused to approve additional funding without an organizational reform of the services, which never happened. The comptroller agreed that organizational reform is desperately needed, but said this did not justify shortchanging the services' critical needs.

The treasury responded that the Interior Ministry could have rearranged its own budget to allocate more to the fire services and less to other issues. It also said it did increase the services' budget, by NIS 21 million in 2009 and NIS 45 million in 2010.

Lindenstrauss stressed that responsibility for "this ongoing failure rests first and foremost with the Interior Ministry and the minister who heads it, as he bears ministerial responsibility for the fire services."

In 2007-2009, he noted, the fire commissioner repeatedly warned the minister of the dire manpower and equipment shortages, but the minister did nothing.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas ) took office in March 2009, succeeding MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima ) in the post.

Yishai said yesterday that he warned repeatedly of the fire services' dire problems and sought extra funding to fix them, but was turned down. And when the cabinet finally did approve extra money in July, it was only NIS 100 million of the NIS 665 million he requested.

The comptroller termed this cabinet decision significant but insufficient.

Lindenstrauss also criticized Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as he has overall ministerial responsibility for home front defense, which includes the emergency services. Neither he nor his ministry made any active effort to solve the fire services' problems so as to prepare them for an emergency, Lindenstrauss wrote.

Barak responded that the Interior Ministry has primary responsibility for the fire services.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also knew of the problems, but failed to solve them, the comptroller said. Netanyahu aides said he was unable to resolve the relevant ministries' disagreements over the issue, so he focused on emergency funding for immediate needs.

In his recommendations, Lindenstrauss said a national fire service must be created as quickly as possible. At present each local department is independent, which precludes centralized command and control in an emergency.

He also said the manpower and equipment gaps must be closed urgently, and the Interior Ministry should set a clear timetable for doing so in conjunction with the finance and defense ministries.