Israel is being hammered by one heat wave after another, and now a report reveals that, should large-scale fires erupt, the country remains woefully unprepared to handle such crises

Meir Turgeman

On Sunday, 20-year-old Ofir Malka from the Meitar local council in southern Israel, experienced a harrowing escape from the blazing Greek island of Rhodes. “I felt like I was trapped in a nightmarish film,” she said. “Rhodes was engulfed in darkness, my cell phone had no signal, and people were panicking.”

Despite safely returning to Israel, the emotions linger. “Only now do I grasp the urgency for Israel to brace itself for such situations,” Malka said. Sadly, even with the looming climate crisis posing a global threat, it appears that Israel remains ill-prepared to face the challenges of catastrophic fires.

Based on a report obtained by Ynet and sister publication Yedioth Ahronoth, the fire and rescue system currently faces a shortage of 1,460 firefighters. There currently are approximately 1,900 active firefighters, far below the target set in 2018, which aimed for over 3,360 personnel.

The Knesset Scientific Research Center report also highlights a 23% discrepancy in the number of fire stations, which currently stands at 123. Additionally, there is a shortage of fire trucks, with only 566 available – approximately 90 short of the optimal scenario.

According to the Knesset’s report, “these gaps have developed over the past few years due to insufficient budget allocation for meeting standards and establishing new stations, especially in peripheral areas, outside of major metropolitan hubs. The challenges posed by tall constructions, underground infrastructures (tunnels for light rail and roads), and transitioning to renewable energies are further exacerbating the existing gap.”

Despite the progress made in the last decade, with the construction of approximately 60 fire stations after the 2010 Carmel fire disaster, the fire brigade organization nevertheless falls short of its goal to have fire stations strategically located for a response time of up to seven minutes from receiving emergency calls. Currently, the average response time is nine minutes. A veteran firefighter emphasized that “sometimes, being just one minute late can make the difference between a tragic death in a fire and saving a life.”

The shortage of firefighters has resulted in over 80% of the teams being composed of just two firefighters. A former senior firefighter expressed concern over this situation, stating that “there is no place in the world where only two firefighters respond to a scene. It puts one firefighter in a dangerous position, since they enter the fire alone without knowing what awaits them.”

The fire department acknowledges the situation and says they are making efforts to adapt to the evolving reality. “Following the Carmel disaster, the fire department made significant progress, but unfortunately, we have been struggling to keep up ever since. I regret to admit that the country is not adequately prepared for extreme scenarios like those witnessed in neighboring Greece. It’s only a matter of time before we face similar challenges,” a senior member of the Fire Commission concedes.

In response, the Firefighting and Rescue Authority said in a statement that it is prepared to confront the challenges of the global climate crisis. It acknowledged the existing gaps and is actively working to develop effective force multipliers to enhance capabilities in dealing with various threats. The authority emphasized that in the past year it received a substantial budget increase and added 250 personnel to optimize the operational response to routine and emergency situations