Who's to Blame for the Dire State of the Fire Services?

In the comptroller's report published in 2007, he described the fire services as the weakest link in the chain, which could also affect the functioning of other rescue services during a war.

The strict rules governing the State Comptroller's Office creates a bizarre situation: The comptroller's report on the fire services, which his office has been working on for the last year, was given to the government and the media yesterday. But nothing from it can be published until 24 hours later, meaning 4 P.M. today.

Thus journalists and politicians already know what the report says. Only the general public Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss' main target audience is still in the dark.

Micha Lindenstrauss - Olivier Fitoussi
Olivier Fitoussi

But without violating the gag order, here is a general outline of what to expect, based on Lindenstrauss' public statements and information released by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, the fire commissioner and other officials since the weekend's Carmel fire.

The comptroller's decision to write a special report on the fire services stemmed from his probe of home front preparedness during the Second Lebanon War. In that report, published in 2007, he described the fire services as the weakest link in the chain. That weakness could affect the functioning of other rescue services, especially during a war, he said.

That report detailed the fire services' lack of manpower, equipment and vehicles, its inadequate budget, and problems in its command-and-control structure, which make it impossible for the national Fire Commission to effectively coordinate local fire departments in an emergency.

All these problems were evident during the Carmel fire: outdated and inadequate equipment (even compared to the Palestinian Authority!), problems with communications networks, antiquated situation rooms that had trouble managing the incident. One can thus assume that little has improved since the 2007 report and that in fact, the situation has worsened.

The structural problem is expected to be a particular focus of the report, since it precludes effective management of a major crisis. Though Ehud Olmert's government actually decided to create a new, centralized agency to solve this problem in 2008, nothing happened on the ground.

Even a disaster as severe as the Carmel fire poses less of a threat than a full-scale war. Hezbollah reportedly now has some 45,000 rockets and missiles capable of hitting anywhere in Israel and causing far more damage than it did during the Second Lebanon War.

Hamas is also improving its missile capabilities in Gaza. Thus Israel is threatened on at least two fronts (and a wider war could involve Syria and Iran, too). But while home front preparedness has improved in other regards, the fire services have not.

Since the fire, everyone has heard about the long list of reports on the fire services' dire state that were never implemented, as well as the past year's efforts at improvement, which have so far borne no fruit. The comptroller can be expected to analyze what happened to all those previous reports and why the current government's decision to allocate another NIS 100 million to the fire services was not implemented.

He will presumably allocate blame both within the current government (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu versus Interior Minister Eli Yishai; Yishai versus Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who bears overall responsibility for home front defense) and between the current government and its predecessors (both as a whole and with regard to Yishai versus previous interior ministers).

But since the Interior Ministry bears direct responsibility for the fire services, that ministry and its head are clearly likely to bear the brunt of the blame.

Due to the Carmel fire, this report is likely to have far more impact than previous ones. Still, much will depend on its tone: A harsher, more aggressive tone will make more waves. Lindenstrauss is known to have made some changes in the report after the fire, and one can assume the tone will be suitably harsh.

The comptroller is an experienced political and media player. He easily repulsed Netanyahu's effort this week to postpone the report's publication.

Former comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat's famous dictum that «government must not be bought with money» resonated for years. It wouldn't be too risky to wager that Lindenstrauss has prepared a similarly memorable slogan for this report.


Tomer Zarchin contributed to this report.