Home June 2012 Putting Out Fires

Putting Out Fires

Shmuel Friedman, fire department chief commander of the municipality of Jerusalem, could describe his job in two words: “It’s complicated.”  Still, Friedman, who has held the position for two years, clearly loves his job, takes great pride in his department’s accomplishments and would not want to be doing anything else.
There are 130 firefighters in Jerusalem, Friedman related.  New York City has 11,000 uniformed fire fighters.
The fire code law in Jerusalem dates back to 1953.  New buildings have their own safety codes.  Most buildings in the Old City do not, and many of the buildings in Arab sections are illegal.
In addition, the socioeconomic situation, which Friedman described as one of the poorest in Israel, contributes to the fire safety problem.  One-third of the population is Arab, speaking a different language, and one-third ultra-Orthodox, living in crowded older, multi-story buildings.  There is an arson problem in Jerusalem, to the tune of 40 fires per year.  The hills, valleys and forests in the area further complicate the situation, Friedman said.
“There’s a lack of equipment, men and stations,” Friedman added.  “There are just two sky lifts to use in high-rise buildings, and one of them – which dates back to 1990 – is in the garage most of the time, because it’s broken.  Towers pose a real problem, because the sky lifts are not high enough.  Firefighters have keys to the elevators, but sometimes they don’t work.  Some of the trucks are really old too.”
In spite of these issues, Friedman waxes enthusiastic about the progress being made in firefighting in Israel.  After 25 years in the Israeli army, with the paratroopers and marines, he had become the deputy commander of the central district for the search and rescue regiment.  He received an award from President Shimon Peres and then became a consultant to the ministry of defense and the water authority.  It could have been the end of a rewarding career and more time with the family, but then he got a call for his present job and knew where he needed to be.
“It’s hard work, but I love it,” he said.  We’re doing a great job, and we have a great relationship with the population.  We even have 30 Arab firefighters who get along well with everybody.”
From the age of 20, Friedman was an officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), so he knows how to command people, including in Lebanon and Gaza.  With an MBA in business management from Ben Gurion University, he knows how to manage people and resources.  Most of all, he knows how to rescue people.
The year before Friedman came there were 8,000 incidents – fires, car accidents, gas leaks and terrorist attacks – requiring the first response services of his firefighters.  The number went down to 7,250 under his watch, especially in Orthodox areas, where people received education on managing to stay safe in older buildings.
He added, “We spend a lot of time educating people about fire safety to prevent a fire before it even happens and to increase survival rates when it does.  We can’t make demands in residential buildings, but we can suggest sprinklers and smoke detectors.  Businesses have to do that in order to get licenses.”
What Friedman and his team can do is present common sense ideas to the people they serve.  They have met with rabbis to spread the word to their congregants to pay attention to fire safety and cooperate with the firefighters.  For instance, some people put Shabbat or Chanukah candles under curtains or candles in sukkahs on balconies of apartment buildings.  In the past the results have been devastating.  That was not a problem this year, Friedman said.
In addition, Friedman and his staff have taught the population of Israel steps that can be taken to help prevent the spread of fires like the one in Carmel in December 2010.  “We’ve learned a lot from replanting the trees, such as how to leave fire breaks,” he said.  “Now people have to understand who’s responsible for the forests.  Some belong to a given municipality and some to the Jewish National Fund.  We had a big meeting with the authorities and made a demand for people to look out for things in the forests.  Otherwise, we’ll go to the media.”
Friedman’s team cooperates with other firefighters throughout Israel, even though the law doesn’t require it.  “We all help each other, and we have the strongest and biggest region.  He sent everybody but the shift on duty to Carmel, in alternating fashion, so that 100 of his staff ended up going there.  When there was a fire close to Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, other units came into play.  A recent fire came close to the boundaries of the memorial at Yad Vashem, and it was stopped without any casualties.
“We’re succeeding,” Friedman said.  “People understand that with education, prevention and common sense, they can save lives, water and property.”

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