Eternal Flame Fighters
Reuven Yitzhak downshifts his Ford pickup and charges up a steep, narrow, rock-strewn path usually traversed by hikers, not small trucks, and heads in the direction of smoke curling into the sky.
Soon the fire comes into sight on a sloping hill of pine trees on the edge of the Jerusalem Forest. Large fire trucks are already positioned at the base and on top of the hill.
“The firefighters have closed in on the fire from all sides,” Yitzhak, 47, explained before he jumps out of his specially fitted vehicle, donated by New Yorkers in memory of firefighters killed on 9/11, and races to join his colleagues. A shift captain at the Beit Shemesh fire station, he had been called in as backup, but the fire turned out to be relatively small.
Pinecones pop and burning branches and tree stumps smolder. Firemen in red vests with the words “Fire and Rescue” in Hebrew on a reflective silver strip across their backs roll out hoses. Others give terse updates on walkie-talkies to firefighters downhill and at headquarters in Beit Shemesh, a growing town about 15 miles west of Jerusalem.
At headquarters, Cheli Sitbon, a university student, juggles calls at the switchboard, manning four phones at once and typing updates on a computer. Behind her are shelves of three-ring binders bulging with blueprints of local buildings, including schools and factories, and area maps.
Despite their hard work, firefighters remain Israel’s unsung heroes, competing for public attention and resources. Frustrations aside, firemen are devoted to their jobs, driven by adrenaline, a sense of public duty and a genuine love for what they do.
“I can’t explain it, but [firemen do not] want to go home,” said Eli Peretz, 58.
Head of the Beit Shemesh fire station, Peretz’s career began in the 1960s as a 14-year-old volunteer.
“We got addicted to the work and then could not live without it,” he recalled. “Once you start, it’s hard to stop, and happily all these years later I’m still hooked.”
When Avi Ben-Zaken, 41, Beit Shemesh operations officer, speaks of what draws him to the job, his eyes light up. “No two days are ever alike,” he said, “and the people are great.… The transition from routine to action is instantaneous. Each time the bell sounds you have no idea what awaits.”
For 33-year-old Boaz Bechor, who works out of a station in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, firefighting runs in his family; his father and brother are also firefighters.
“It’s about saving lives and giving back to society, and that’s what I was raised on,” Bechor noted.
The firemen work in shifts: 24 hours on, 48 hours off. While on duty they don’t sleep, but occasionally “rest”—fully dressed and with their shoes on so that they will be ready when a fire breaks out. On a typical day, that’s every 13 minutes; on average in Israel, there are 39,000 fires a year. That number has begun to dip in recent years, officials said, due to better adherence to fire codes, particularly in office buildings.
Fires in forests and open areas have also decreased, according to Shimon Romach, 60, Israel’s national fire and rescue commissioner, a managerial position that oversees training, equipment purchasing and budgets of municipal fire departments across the country. (There is, however, no ministerial-level department of firefighting.)
Romach credits the reduced number of fires to Israel’s West Bank security fence; many such fires had been attributed to political arson, especially during the two intifadas. (Aside from arson—political and criminal—fires are largely caused by negligence and electrical shorts.)
Training is comparable to that in the United States: three months of basic fire and rescue education in a local stationhouse followed by two months of advanced studies at the national training center in Rishon Lezion, outside Tel Aviv. Many arrive with basic knowledge of rescue and evacuation work from their Army combat experience.
At the center, firefighters learn the physics and chemistry of how fires spread and strategies for combating different types of blazes, from those in cars to high rises and forests, and about hazardous and chemical materials. They also learn how to remove passengers who are trapped in cars or train wrecks. Periodically, there is additional training for those advancing to supervisory and managerial positions.
These days, putting out fires constitutes less than half of firefighters’ activity; the remainder is rescue assistance, mostly for road or other accidents, where they are in charge of extracting the injured from mangled vehicles.
Of course, there are also the more mundane tasks such as delivering water to the public when a pipe bursts and assisting animals in distress—from cats stuck in trees to horses that have stumbled into deep holes.
Except for three years in the Army, Peretz has spent his entire adult life in the Beit Shemesh firehouse. In his office hangs a map of the large swath of territory under his command; it stretches from the edge of Jerusalem in the east, west to Masmiya, south to the Beit Jubril Junction and north to Modi’in, and includes forests, factories, towns, kibbutzim and moshavim. From his headquarters in a three-story building, he oversees five stations.
Ben-Zaken, a former paratrooper, reflected on the differences in the image and status of American and Israeli firefighters.
“In the United States, people usually don’t have close contact with soldiers the way they do here, so the heroes they see in person are the firemen,” he explained.
“In Israel,” added Romach, “every Army brigade has elite units on top of the special police units, then there is the Shin Bet, the Mossad and the pilots, so as you can see the field [of heroes] is a crowded one.”
During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, however, Israeli firemen were thrust on the national stage for the first time as they surged to the northern border to help put out fires sparked by Hezbollah rockets.
An estimated 9,000 acres of land in the Galilee—approximately 3,000 acres of forest—were damaged by rocket attacks during the month-long war. The manpower shortage was acutely felt as firemen pulled double duty, fighting as many as 100 fires a day in forests, fields, orchards and residences. Many firemen had not been equipped with flak jackets, despite the Katyusha rockets falling all around them.
The war was “an indelible line,” recalled Ben-Zaken. “People did not know what firemen could really accomplish [before then].”
Itzik Biton, 37, also with the Beit Shemesh force, was among the first firemen sent north, joining those who poured in from all over the country. Headquartered in Safed, he saw rockets destroy homes and fall close to hospitals and synagogues.
In a forest, the firefighters were extinguishing a blaze when they came under the hail of seven rockets.
“We did not even know in which direction to run, they were falling around us like rain,” he said, before adding soberly, “God was with us that day.”
There was a lot of praying during that time, Biton observed—and firefighters went beyond their normal duties, delivering food (received from the Army and volunteers) to those who stayed in shelters and housing families making their way south, out of Katyusha range.
“It was a time where everyone felt like we were part of one big family,” Biton recalled.
When battling forest fires during the 2006 war, as during quieter times, efforts were coordinated with the Jewish National Fund, which has a private force of 100 men that protects forests and open spaces across the country. (One of the newest JNF trucks was donated by Hadassah.)
Like all of Israel’s rescue organizations, firefighters’ courage has been on display on the frontline of terror. In July 1989, the first Palestinian suicide attack took place in the Beit Shemesh district. Palestinian terrorists hijacked a Jerusalem-bound No. 405 bus and plunged it into a ravine, killing 14 people and wounding 30. Peretz remembers his firefighters using ropes and pipes to extract the injured.
One place where the wail of sirens has become commonplace is Sderot. During times of intense Qassam rocket fire from Gaza, firefighters from around the country volunteer their vacation time and weekends to help out in the beleaguered town.
Lack of manpower remains an ongoing challenge. There are a total of 1,600 firefighters in Israel, with an average of 420 on duty on any given day. This translates to about 1 firefighter per 6,500 Israelis. By contrast, the rate in the United States and many European countries is about 1 per 1,000 residents.
“This is a ridiculous number when compared to anywhere else in the world,” Romach asserted.
The understaffing is blamed on funding shortfalls from cash-strapped cities. Of the country’s 97 fire stations, 36 are seriously understaffed, with only 2 firemen on duty instead of the requisite 4. In nine stations, there is only one on duty, including in the Eshkol region in the western Negev that neighbors Gaza.
The total annual budget is $150 million; about 35 percent comes from the national government, 50 percent from local municipalities and 15 percent from firemen’s fees for seminars. The latest budget is short by $16.6 million because some municipal funding has not come through.
Firefighters grumble about late paychecks. In Beit Shemesh, emotions are still raw over the four months in 2004 when paychecks did not arrive. Firefighters swap stories about banks unwilling to give them home mortgages because, in some towns and cities, they do not get paid on time.
To ease the burden, five years ago the Friends of Israel Firefighters organization (www.fif.org.il) was established: To date, it has raised about $10 million from diaspora communities, mostly in North America but also in Europe and Australia.
“We are trying to get as [many] resources as we can to buy equipment,” said Doron Kadmiel, director of the FIF. “It was easier to raise money after the [Second Lebanon War], but now, too, we have many open doors in communities and hearts in the United States.”
This fall, just before Rosh Hashana, the firefighting community celebrated a rare, festive occasion—the opening of a firehouse. The new Ramat Hahayal station in northeastern Tel Aviv brings the number of fire- houses in the city to four, which will drastically reduce response time.
For the occasion, Israeli flags were strung across the newly paved parking lot that still smelled like fresh tar; speeches were made by the town’s mayor, Ron Huldai, and top firefighter officials; and a mezuza was affixed to the station’s main entrance.
The centerpiece of the event was a shiny red mini-fire truck wrapped in a white bow, donated by Louis and Eva Galpern of Brooklyn, one of dozens of such vehicles donated through the FIF. Designed as a quick-response vehicle, it can more easily navigate traffic than larger trucks and attend to smaller fires and car accidents. (Large Israeli fire trucks are still smaller than American ones; European-made, they must fit the country’s narrow roads.)
After dealing with two back-to-back fires, Yitzhak returns to the firehouse and is making lunch in the communal kitchen. The 20-year veteran quickly fries up omelets and sets out fresh hunks of bread, a tomato-and-cucumber salad, hummus and coleslaw. He sits down to eat with fellow firefighter Yoram Hadad, 37. A few years ago, the two rescued an entire family from a burning home.
“There were four children, still tucked in their beds,” Yitzhak recalled. “We rushed to them and, confused, they looked at us like we were astronauts who had come from the moon. I lifted up two of them and gave them to Yoram and said run, and then quickly took out the other two.
“It was one of those moments where I told myself: I have now justified my salary for the rest of my life,” he said. “Firefighting is what I live and breathe.” H