Fire Service commissioner: We built new organization

Fire Service commissioner: We built new organization

02 December 2011

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Israel — One year after Carmel fire, commissioner Shahar Ayalon tells ‘Post’ brought experience from police work.

One year ago, columns of smoke rose from the blackened remains of the Mount Carmel forest, testament to the Israel Fire and Rescue Service’s failure to cope with a giant blaze that spread quickly over parched land.

Forty-four people lost their lives – two firemen and a 16-year-old volunteer battling the blaze; three senior police officers assisting in rescue efforts; and 36 Prisons Service cadets, their commander and their driver, who burned alive in their bus.

The shortcomings that beleaguered the service then are familiar by now to most Israelis: A lack of firefighting planes, antiquated equipment, chronic shortages in trucks, personnel and equipment, a lack of coordination, and underfunding.

Today, however, the organization has changed so dramatically for the better that it would be difficult to recognize it as the same Fire and Rescue Service of 2010, its commissioner, Shahar Ayalon, told The Jerusalem Post this week.

Ayalon, formerly head of the Tel Aviv police district, took up his post in May, when the government also elected to place the organization under the jurisdiction of the Public Security Ministry.

“What I found here were professional firefighters,” Ayalon said.

Asked what he contributed to the service from his experience in the police, he responded, “I brought the ability to handle complex systems with me to this position, as well as experience in dealing with unusual incidents, and long-term planning. We can definitely deal with an incident like the Carmel fire today because of the several changes we made.”

During last December’s fire, the service struggled to keep all of the firefighters in touch with one another, and suffered a breakdown in communications with other emergency responders.

This lack of coordination was one of the reasons behind the Prisons Service’s disastrous decision to send a bus filled with cadets to evacuate a prison in the fire’s path – a mistake that led the bus directly into the speeding flames, killing those on board.

“Today, we operate an information and control system from our headquarters in Rishon Lezion,” said Ayalon. “It works 24/7, and connects the whole system together. It also connects us to paramedics, police and our aerial firefighting wing. It sees every development, tracks it, and can deploy responses on a national level.”

The NIS 5 million computerized system, named Shalhevet (Hebrew for “ember”), is designed to overcome the structural weakness that arises from the fact that there is no single firefighting authority, but rather, 24 quasi-independent regional branches that operate in conjunction with the commissioner.

The system will also be linked to a revolutionary computer that can predict the direction a fire will spread in, based on weather and geography.

“We have doubled the number of operations officers in the service, who in turn are overseeing a rise in drills and simulations,” Ayalon said.

Since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered the air force to set up a fleet of firefighting planes, seven aircraft have come into operation. The service hopes to expand that number to 12 in the coming year.

“We are also renewing our vehicles. We purchased almost 100 new fire trucks for our departments,” Ayalon said. The new trucks, which come with modern ladder systems and other vital equipment, will replace aging and rusting vehicles.

“New stations are being opened around the country, such as the one in Ramat Hovav [in the Negev], a site that has dangerous petrochemicals on it,” he added.

The Fire and Rescue Service laid a cornerstone for a new station in Usfiya, where the two youths – who accidentally threw a water pipe charcoal into a forest that sparked last year’s massive blaze – came from.

Additionally, 300 tons of fire retardants – a substance that quickly ran out during last year’s disaster – has been amassed, and fire chiefs hope to eventually store 1,600 tons of the substance.

The Public Security Ministry has made NIS 100m. available this year to the cash-starved departments for purchases, and a further NIS 150m. will be available in 2012.

Three hundred new firefighters were enlisted this year, increasing numbers by 20 percent, and a large firefighting academy was opened in Rishon Lezion to train recruits.

“This is the beginning. We’re not planning on stopping here,” Ayalon vowed.

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