Israel — The writing was burnt into the wall but the interior minister, defense minister, finance minister and prime minister turned a blind eye: Completely improper administration, constant ‘passing the buck’ from minister to minister, those responsible for Israeli citizens’ lives dragged their feet endlessly these are the characteristics of the ongoing failures revealed in full in the State Comptroller’s report on the preparation of Israel’s emergency fire and rescue services, issued in the aftermath of the deadly fire in the Carmel region.
The guilty parties have been named and shamed: Organizational oversights ascribed to Interior Minister Eli Yishai; Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz guilty of budgetary oversights. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is seen as a disconnected minister, who wasn’t involved in finding a solution in spite of his responsibilities including home front preparedness in times of emergency. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew everything and dragged the decision.
The 38 page report leaves no room for doubt the Israeli government abandoned and neglected its citizens. “The fact that the management of the problem by Interior Minister Eli Yishai in cooperation with the Finance Ministry and the Defense Ministry – went on and on and did nothing to promote practical solutions and integrated programs and is a lapse which means the civilian population is neglected in emergency situations.”
Not only was the fire services configuration not improved since the last report, which was put together after the Second Lebanon War the situation has even worsened and reached a point where “an emergency situation would bring about a collapse.”
The comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, stated that “this report on the preparedness of fire and rescue services is a grave report that testifies in a most reliable manner to the completely improper practices of the administration, especially among the decision makers in the Israeli government.”
Failing grade: Eli Yishai
Interior Minister Yishai is marked as the accountable one, as the comptroller states: “I find it right to alert the Israeli government and the prime minister of the ongoing omission which lies first and foremost at the Interior Ministry’s door and that of the man at its head.”
The comptroller called on those responsible to implement the government decision to establish a national authority for fire and rescue services and to organize the fire services deployment in a way that would fit with its purpose the sooner the better!”
The comptroller suggested that the proposal made by former Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and present Interior Minister Yishai to transfer the fire and rescue services to the authority of the Internal Security Ministry or the Defense Ministry but first of all the organizational structure must be changed.
Sheetrit is also criticized in the report. During his tenure the Interior Ministry never discussed methods for fixing the shortcomings published in the report.
Minister Sheetrit, states the comptroller, never directed his team to discuss the issue as required by the State Comptroller’s law.
Steinitz: Ignoring the problem
On the issue of the fire and rescue services budgetary constraints, the comptroller places the blame on both the Interior and Finance Ministries and states that “the management of the issue got stuck in the intolerable situation where a solution was lacking.” Yuval Steinitz’s office stipulated that a monetary response would come with organizational reform.
When the reform wasn’t implemented, the budgetary needs remained unanswered, and the issue was stuck in a ‘catch 22’ of sorts. “The major gaps in the level of preparedness in the fire and rescue services remain as was”.
Between 2007-2010 the Interior Ministry presented the total budgetary needs of the fire and rescue services in everyday situations and during emergencies a number of times but only presented a minimized demand for the immediate limitation of shortages in May 2010.
The comptroller noted that: “The Interior Ministry failed to learn from its mistakes in its actions, together with the Finance Ministry, to form an approved program that would allow the immediate handling of major gaps in the fire services and their essential supplementation in times of emergency and allocating a budget as needed.”
Disconnected Minister: Ehud Barak
Defense Minister Ehud Barak is painted in less than flattering light as completely disconnected from reality. As early as April 2007 the government gave Barak the “responsibility for dealing with the home front in emergencies”, but he was never actively involved, along with the interior minister, or if necessary with the prime minister or the government in promoting and handling the issue of emergency fire services preparedness and reaching a practical solution”.
The national emergency authority is also on the receiving end of harsh criticism. Since the Second Lebanon War, not only have they not improved cooperation between emergency and rescue organizations they have become significantly weaker.
The authority never presented the preparedness of the emergency fire services, even though it was clearly mentioned that the authority must prepare an annual report on the home front’s preparedness in various sectors and present it before the government.
The Home Front Command is also criticized for concentrating the basic problems of the fire and rescues services and presenting them to the proper authorities. There was no cooperation among the different organizations. As Home front Commander General Yair Golan said in March of this year he “didn’t know if the fire services had enough equipment for emergencies as the home front command hadn’t analyzed the situation”.
Postponing Prime Minister
The Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t manage to escape the comptroller’s criticism and is seen as someone who takes his time when making decisions, and who prefers to postpone to tomorrow things that can be decided today.
In spite of a great deal of correspondence and deliberations between the fire services commissioner, the Interior Ministry and the Finance Ministry over the issue of budgeting and equipment for the fire services, the issue only came before the director general of the prime minister’s office in October 2009.
Two months later it made its way to the prime minister but “even following those deliberations no actual progress was made and the severe problems in the fire service remained as they were”.
It was only in July of this year that the government came to a decision on the issue of “improving the fire services deployment” and allocated NIS 100 million ($27,447,839) for the issue.
Another decision they made was to prepare a memorandum for a law on establishing a national fire and rescue authority. The Olmert government had made a similar decision in 2008. Yet there is no memo and no law.
The Comptroller stated that the preparation of the bill must be completed posthaste. “Due to the endless and incomprehensible foot dragging in the handling of the issue, as well as past experience” the State Comptroller’s Office recommends that the “prime minister keep an eye on the implementation of the government decision”.
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss recommends taking some tough steps, but has avoided making any personal recommendations: “This report will unfortunately, not be the last in a long line of reports on painful subjects if those involved will not learn their lessons. I am more and more convinced that only exceptional and meaningful steps which I will not enumerate here, will be able to break the old convention that ‘the dogs bark and the convoy moves on'”.