State Comptroller warns of 'death trap' high-rise buildings

Comptroller finds major deficiencies in report on authorities' readiness for large-scale fires such as the 2016 arson attacks.

Arutz Sheva Staff ,

Firefighters in residential area
Firefighters in residential area

The State Comptroller, retired judge Yosef Shapira, published a special audit report on the preparedness of the local authorities for fires, their response to the rash of arson fires in November 2016, and the compensation for damages and costs to the economy of those fires.

The wave of fires that took place throughout Israel in November 2016 was the worst in the country's history in terms of damage to property and the environment. For the first time, densely populated urban neighborhoods with tens of thousands of residents were severely damaged.

The fires consumed more than 41,000 dunams (10,100 acres) of land. About 1,900 apartments were damaged, of which about 580 were destroyed or had to be demolished. 123 vehicles were damaged. The damage caused during the fires and the cost of fighting the blazes amounted to at least NIS 647 million ($173 million).

Major deficiencies found in comptroller's report

The comptroller found that infrastructure for the preparedness of local authorities for fires was lacking, In particular, the report noted the absence of agreements between the relevant government ministries, as well as the fact that regulations and rules regarding the protection of settlements from forest fires, which were formulated in 2014, have yet to be approved.

The four-year delay creates a situation in which the firefighting authority cannot instruct the local authorities how to prepare for the prevention of fires in their fields, supervise the implementation of its provisions, and enforce them.

Already in Report 63C published in May 2013, the State Comptroller warned of deficiencies in the ability to cope with fires in high-rise buildings. During a fire, the high rise buildings may be a source of danger to the point of becoming a "death trap" for those living there. Thus, the existing normative infrastructure requires the installation of fire detection and fire extinguishing systems in high-rise buildings, but does not stipulate provisions regarding the examination of their proper functioning and maintenance. In the geographic information system of the Fire Department there is no elevation data for all high-rise buildings in Israel.

Local authorities' preparedness for fires:

Significant deficiencies were found in the preparations of the local authorities that were examined for large-scale fires. Among other things, they did not prepare plans to create a perimeter defense envelope against fires. Some of them did not prepare buffer zones and escape routes, did not establish adequate water infrastructure, and did not practice their emergency systems for fire scenarios. According to the comptroller, a proper buffer line helped prevent the burning of houses.

Functioning of local authorities during the fires November 2016: Although most of the bodies acted in an emergency, no large-scale disaster or other emergency was declared, and there was no orderly discussion of the need for such a declaration.

The report raises deficiencies in the conduct of the operation centers - the places where the emergency headquarters of the local authorities operate during an emergency event.

Due to the lack of permits for special officials, they were denied access to the fire areas and their ability to carry out their duties was impaired. Deficiencies were also found in the evacuation of the population and in the evacuation of educational institutions.

The compensation process for the injured and the compensation to the local authorities: Due to the data of the Israel Police, according to which a significant part of the fires were caused by arson on the basis of nationalism, the Director of the Tax Authority decided to define these arson as "an emergency period." The compensation fund established within four days of the outbreak of the fires four treatment focal points for fire compensation

By the end of May 2018, the fund had completed handling the vast majority (97%) of the compensation files and paid NIS 260 million ($70 million) for the fires, while the Tax Authority did not set a policy regarding compensation for damage to the forest and groves even though it was required to do so for this issue in the past. This led to ambiguity, delayed the review of claims and prevented the transfer of funds to rehabilitate damaged areas.

State Comptroller Shapira instructed the Interior Ministry to distribute the audit report to the local authorities, which were not examined in the current audit, so that they will learn its findings, draw the necessary lessons and act to implement them.

The State Comptroller called upon the relevant government ministries, emergency bodies, the Tax Authority and local authorities to act decisively, to advance preparations for civil emergency events and to deal quickly and efficiently with similar and even more serious incidents in the future. "They must deal with the shortcomings raised in this report and the previous reports in order to be prepared as early as the summer of 2019."