The defining event that changed the face of firefighting in Israel was the December 2010 fire in the Carmel Mountains. Forty-four people died, and 6,177 acres of woods were destroyed.
Four months after the devastation, the air force established a firefighting squadron whose six aircraft are presently maintained by Elbit Systems. In addition, Israel Fire and Rescue Service ordered 88 firefighting vehicles. “There are several types of firefighting vehicles,” says Fire Service Commissioner, Chief Shahar Ayalon.
“Some of the vehicles are undergoing supply processes and need to undergo several changes. We’ve also published a tender worth 12 million NIS for personal fireman protection equipment including fireproof proximity suits, helmets, shoes, and coats. Additionally, we bought equipment from around the world, and are working with four to five international companies. We’re going to change the firefighter uniform, and even have a new symbol for the firefighters. We are also currently testing the simulators that exist around the world, and have allocated a sum of more than $10 million. In addition, we are constructing a new instruction facility in Rishon LeZion.
Following the 2010 fire, Shahar Ayalon came to head the Fire Service after serving in the Israeli Police as district commander and deputy inspector general. According to Ayalon, the far-reaching changes within the fire service are also intended for firefighters participating in mass disaster relief, such as wide-ranging missile attacks and natural disasters.
In his opinion, the situation is far from satisfactory. Ayalon notes that during the 2011 rocket attacks from Gaza, it was impossible to send a vehicle from Ashkelon to handle a fire that burst out in the nearby town of Gan Yavneh, which was a result of administrative problems (the town belonged to the more distant district of Rehovot). It took a fire vehicle no less than 20 minutes to make it from there. According to him, there remains a severe shortage in firefighting stations across the country.
“We’ve conducted a threat reference with Israel’s Technion and the National Emergency Authority on how many firefighting vehicles and how many firefighters are needed to provide a response for Israel,” says Ayalon. “The interim statement indicates that an additional 40-60 stations are needed on top of the 100 that already exist. We want to lower the response time. In 2010, our average response time was 14 minutes. In the US, the standard is five minutes for the first team, and an additional five minutes for a second team. In Europe, it’s between 8-10 minutes - we want to approach this time.”
“Our current budget is 700 million NIS. I assume that after the reform, the budget will cross the one billion NIS mark. There won’t be any choice but to construct 50 more stations, and this will have to be planned in the framework of the multi-year budget.”
“The firefighting system responds to 80,000 situations a year, nearly half of which are tied to rescue and extraction missions,” explains Ayalon. “We have 15 urban rescue units that can enter wreckage sites and rescue people from buildings, including two new units in Be’er Sheva and Netanya. These units are comprised of young and well-trained firefighters. We conduct the courses with RESQ1, a company of military veterans who have run these training exercises around the world for years.
“We also send 15 fighters each year to France to undergo advanced studies in rescuing people trapped in stormy weather. The scope of rescue is the same as the scope of firefighting, even though people think we only extinguish fires. In reality, we engage in rescues, deal with dangerous substances, and also fight fires.”
What will happen during a war? After all, it’s the IDF’s Rear-Area Headquarters that primarily deal with search and rescue.
“In a period of emergency and war, the Rear-Area HQ is also responsible for the Fire Service. The threat to the home front switched to a threat of missiles, and we are preparing for a state of demolished buildings in which the firefighters will have to handle both fires and structural collapses.
“We also take into account damage to strategic factories that house dangerous materials, and we intensively practice situations of container and fuel reserve impacts. We carry out risk assessments with the factories and introduce them to the forces. We have an organized doctrine that is also suitable for missile scenarios.
“We built an operations branch that works, practices, and immediately responds to events, reinforces units, and does all the required operations that are similar to a military system.
“For emergency scenarios, we purchased 24 containers equipped with clothing, food, and water. It costs a lot of money, but we placed these types of emergency containers at each station. As soon as there’s a war, we can increase our number of fire departments and our launches by 40% by taking out fire trucks to all sorts of launch points, thus bringing the firefighters closer to response locations. We settle in well-known locations and are capable of emergency deployment that increases manpower by having 1,200 firefighters in the reserve forces join the regular military.
“In emergency scenarios, we are the first ones alerted and the first to reach the scene. If it’s wreckage, we focus on rescuing lives and extracting whoever we can out of the rubble. Once the Rear-Area HQ’s rescue unit arrives, we pass the responsibility on to them and leave the scene. We are the immediate response for the golden hour – the time when the chances of finding survivors is the highest.”
** Photos: The fire extinguishing squad by Fire Service; Chief Shahar Ayalon by Fire Service