Only days after he finished a nonstop, 82-hour fight against the forest fire that destroyed five million trees in northern Israel, Amir Levi launched another battle: to raise awareness of the needs of fire departments in his country.
The fire chief of the northern Galilee region stopped in Pittsburgh from Sunday to Tuesday as part of a short tour of U.S. cities, a trip that had been planned by Jewish National Fund — which helps fundraise for Friends of Israel Firefighters in the U.S. — well before fire broke out last week in the Carmel Mouontrains.
In Pittsburgh, Levi spoke to groups, including the young professional network J’Burgh (which will send a group of young Pittsburghers to northern Israel next week) and students of all ages at Community Day School.
Adrienne Indianer, JNF’s regional director, guided Levi and JNF Development Officer Ariel Kotler, through Pittsburgh.
Originally, Levi “was coming here on a tour to raise money for equipment because [Israel’s fire departments] needed it so badly,” said Indianer. Since last week’s tragedy, which killed 43 people, that need was pushed into the public forum of both Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
Echoing the sentiments of many journalists and public figures in Israel, Levi said that Israel was ill prepared to handle such a giant natural, non-foreign threat, with under-funded and poorly equipped fire brigades. But it won’t be for long.
“Change, change and change,” Levi, who speaks little English, said of the future of Israel’s fire departments. “The government will not play games now that people are dead.”
Elaborating on just how underfunded Israel’s fire departments were prior to the disaster, Kotler, who served as Levi’s translator, said the ratio of firefighters to civilians in the United States is about one per 1,000 people. In Israel, it’s about one per 7,000.
The national purchasing budget of the entire Israeli fire department last year was about 8 million shekels, or about $2million — a figure that was far too low, according to Kotler.
“It’s not surprising, then, that cities with populations of 50-60,000 [people] do not have ladder fire trucks,” he said. A completely new ladder fire truck could cost over $1 million — more than half the budget of the entire country’s fire department.
The major change, said Kotler, will come from the fire department administration being moved out of the interior ministry, the branch of Israel’s government that also deals with immigration and social services, but largely not security.
“Israeli ambulances have had a fundraising arm since before the state of Israel was founded,” said Kotler. “Firefighters were always the forgotten son.”
Israel’s other son, said Kotler, is homeland security, which includes the Israeli Defense Forces, and which receives immeasurably more attention from the Israeli government.
“[But] the Israeli fire department is different now than it was a week and a half ago,” said Kotler. “I’m sorry we needed such a crazy, sad emergency to realize. And the reason it’s a terrible tragedy is that we could have done better.”
Levi, who is Israel’s youngest fire chief at 37, said he now is expects the government to pay more attention to its fire departments, citing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to buy new firefighting airplanes.
“The fire itself is nothing,” said Levi, “but because people are dead, the government now knows [the fire department] is important.”
With the government underfunding the fire department for so many years, it was organizations like JNF that helped raise money for new firefighting equipment.
“The Israeli government will now step up to the plate, not a question,” said Kotler. “But there is a big void, and [JNF] is here to fill it.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)