Netanyahu tells fire c’tee ‘we need firefighting planes’

Netanyahu tells fire c’tee ‘we need firefighting planes’

07 March 2011

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Israel — Despite concerns Monday that a Knesset hearing on fire service readiness could turn into a political ambush against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister braved the threat to participate in a briefing as to what steps will be taken to heal Israel’s ailing fire services. Families of the 44 victims of December’s Carmel Fire were present at the heated meeting of the State Control Committee, but contrary to initial concerns, order was maintained at the meeting.

Committee Chairman Yoel Hasson (Kadima) opened the meeting by reiterating his insistence that the meeting be open to all – including all of the bereaved families from the Carmel Fire. On Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office had expressed concern that the families’ participation could cause embarrassment to Netanyahu, who was an active participant in the three-hour-long meeting.

“Knesset hearings are open to all those who believe that they are relevant to the hearing. This report is relevant to the Carmel tragedy, because the fire services did not perform as one would hope,” said Hasson. “We will hold a follow-up meeting in another three months together with the directors-general of the relevant ministries in order to make sure that recommendations are being carried out as well as to check the preparation of the new fire services system.”

The State Control Committee met to discuss the December 2010 State Comptroller’s Report on Israel’s fire and rescue services.

The report was prepared by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss in the months that preceded the Carmel Fire, but was sped up for release in the aftermath of the conflagration that cost 44 lives. It found that few, if any, of the shortcomings found in the larger report on Home Front preparedness prepared following the Second Lebanon War, had been corrected in the ensuing years.

Following the Carmel Fire, the government staved off calls to establish an investigative commission by requesting that Lindenstrauss’s office prepare a report to specifically examine responsibility for the fire, and for the heavy losses suffered, both in lives and in property. Lindenstraus revealed during the Monday meeting that 30 people were tasked with investigating the tragic fire, an unprecedented size for such a probe team. In comparison, only 16 investigators prepared the massive report on the Second Lebanon War.

The report on the fire, Lindenstrauss said, is likely to be concluded in another four months. In the mean time, he warned, fire services could collapse under the weight of large-scale disasters, such as hazardous material spills, terror attacks, or earthquakes.

Immediately before the meeting, Netanyahu met with bereaved families in his office, and when he began his address in the crowded committee room, he reiterated the promise that he had made in his office to help them address concerns regarding commemoration of their loved ones.

The main focus of the prime minister’s briefing to the nearly two dozen MKs centered around plans to establish an aerial fire-fighting service. That unit, he said, would be officially established under the auspices of the IAF, and would coordinate its activities with the new national fire service. Netanyahu said that he had been particularly impressed by the performance of Canadian-made fire-extinguishing airplanes, but that the waiting list for these aircraft was three years.

Nevertheless, he said, Israel would act immediately to set up a seven-plane squadron of fire-fighting planes, including two “scooper” planes that can quickly refill their water payload by swooping down over bodies of water.

Public Security Ministry Dir.-Gen. Ya’akov Genot focused on structural changes to the fire services as part of their ongoing integration under the auspices of his ministry. Genot said that the reorganized fire service would be based on a national, pyramidal structure similar to the Israel Police and the Israel Prison Services, both of which are run by his ministry.

Heckled by a fire fighter’s representative throughout his briefing, Genot added that the restructured fire services would enlist between 300-500 fire fighters, who would be reinforced by a system of fire reservists and volunteers. All of the budget promised by the government, he said, had already been transferred to the ministry, which was working to rebuild the fire training academy and acquire new, modern equipment. He denied reports that a number of fire fighters would be fired as part of the re-structuring.

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