Fire Service Hospitality Also Exists in Middle East
—photos by Bert Lane.
During a trip to the Middle East countries of Egypt, Jordan and Israel, I learned that fire station equipment and staffing may be different in each country, but the warmth of the hospitality extended to visitors is the same around the world.
The first words in any fire station seem to be “Will you have a cup of coffee?”, be it Yuban brewed in an automatic drip or middle eastern coffee boiled with cardamon seeds, dark and syrupy.
My husband and I dropped by the local fire station in Luxor, Egypt, the town famous for the ancient Temple of Karnak, and were immediately invited in for coffee.
The U. S. Department of State made arrangements for a more formal visit with the chief of civil defense in Amman, Jordan. Our interview began with a shared cup of coffee, offered to each guest in turn, followed by spiced tea.
In Jerusalem the former fire commissioner of the State of Israel served coffee in his office, as did the deputy chief of the Jerusalem Fire Services. At the East Jerusalem station the crew insisted we share pita bread, hummus, cucumbers and falafel, as well as coffee.
The visit to a local Luxor fire brigade was a “drop-in” experience, while we were exploring the back streets of this up-river Nile town. Chief Mahmoud Ali Shams graciously backed the pick-up truck with mounted pump out into the sun so that we might photograph it.
He explained that there were six men at the station to staff the apparatus, which “suits fine in Egyptian villages where there are no fire hydrants and no asphalt roads.” The men are part of the police department. They also operate a small wagon with short wooden ladders and a 1-inch hose line. Backup assistance comes from the equipment at the Luxor airport.
From that barest minimum of an Egyptian village fire station we flew to Amman, Jordan, and saw a wonderland of equipment and apparatus of the Jordan Civil Defense Department.
School children were touring the department headquarters as we were ushered into the office of beribboned Brigadier General Mahmoud AlTull, assistant director of civil defense.
Up to date in Jordan
From all indications, the Jordan fire services are well funded and up to date. The department is patterned after the British model. The equipment is made by German manufacturers, primarily Mercedes, although Arabic label has replaced German markings. The department delivers emergency medical services as well as traditional fire services and will soon have 20 paramedic ambulances.
During wartime the Civil Defense Department is responsible in the whole kingdom for rescue, internal security and prevention of looting—in addition to peacetime fire services and action during floods and other natural disasters.
The department operates fireboats at the port of Aqaba and scuba divers for rescues at the Red Sea and Dead Sea. With Jordan’s economy booming, helicopters may be added soon for other duties.
A dazzling display of the Magirus Deutz 44-meter ladder with rescue shuttle left us awed. Unfortunately no one asked if we’d like a ride up and down! It occurred to us that such equipment might have been useful at the recent Las Vegas hotel fires.
Afraid of punishment
Arson, according to Chief of Operations Yasser Al-Humud, is not a major problem in Amman, a city of 1.1 million people. Jordan has fire insurance coverage of buildings, and some fires are set to collect the insurance money. But few fires are set for spite because “the people are afraid of the punishment,” explained Al-Humud.
Fire prevention is important and begins with tours for school children and training of classroom teachers. Fire inspectors have extensive training, and licenses are required from the fire department for new buildings.
Much of our conversation with the general and the chief, through an interpreter, concerned my role as a fire commissioner. In the Arab world it is particularly confusing to meet a woman so interested in fire services. At first, most questions and responses were addressed to my husband.
Only the press of time drew us away from a tour of the barracks, which had separate accommodations for officers and enlisted men. The rooms contained familiar locker and bed arrangements, and a pole. There were comfortable chairs in the television lounge. All furniture is made by the men in the department: handy, self-sufficient fire fighters the world over.
In Israel our host was Alexander Shapir, former fire commissioner for the state, now a consultant to the department. He served in the British Army as a commander of a Jerusalem army base and fought “in 10 wars.” Not only did we learn about fire hazards and strategies, but our tour included a running commentary on the various battles he had commanded and the positions defended around Jerusalem.
The Israeli Fire Department is also modeled on the British system, and much of their equipment is made by German manufacturers. The fire service is part of the civil defense system. It began as a volunteer fire department when the state was created in 1948.
There are about 1000 paid fire fighters for the whole country. They work an 8 or 12-hour shift, with good pay and fringe benefits, and are represented by a very strong union.
The population of Jerusalem, 400,000 persons, is served by three stations located five to six minutes apart, staffed by a total of 18 to 20 men per shift. The entire department employs 86, including support personnel.
Last year’s fire department budget for all of Israel was $15 million. There are, however, separate fire resources funded from different budgets at airports, harbors, on army bases and at oil installations. Emergency medical services are provided by a private organization, Magen David Adorn, similar to the Red Cross.
Because Israel is a country so often engaged in military action, the fire commissioner has broad authority to obtain fire fighting assistance from soldiers and civilians. He can order mutual aid; he can take command of large fires anywhere in the country and when fire services are needed in times of “enemy action.” At one time when it was necessary for Commissioner Shapir to attack a fire burning in an area without water, he ordered milk trucks to be emptied, filled with water and moved to the fire area.
In 1980 there were no fire fatalities in Jerusalem, and only 1200 fires. Deputy Chief Rami Jaffee feels there are two factors which make a difference—stone buildings and low interior fire load. There are few home fires because of strict laws covering built-in fire protection. By law all buildings in Jerusalem must be built of the local stone, useful in limiting fires and also adding visual beauty to the city, which glows in the changing light. Because Israel’s standard of living is not equal to the United States, home interiors have less to burn and fewer electrical appliances to start fires.
Knowing the difficulty many areas of this country are having in implementing a 911 emergency telephone number, we were fascinated to learn that Israel uses a system of dialing 100 for police, 101 for ambulance and 102 for fire calls.
Conversations are stimulating but no substitute for actual experience. With great ceremony the Jerusalem fire fighters brought out their British Simon snorkel. Most visitors remember their view of Jerusalem from the front of the Intercontinental Hotel on the Mount of Olives. We had our most memorable look at the city from the platform of their snorkel, 85 feet above the Jerusalem fire station!
Earlier in our stay we had driven by a station on the edge of the old city, in East Jerusalem. We were amused at the sight of a fire engine parked on a grassy knoll across from the station, surrounded by grazing sheep. We later came on an official visit with Commissioner Shapir and Chief Jaffee to meet, among others, a redheaded Arab fire fighter.
We learned that fire stations in the Arab section of Jerusalem, and in the territory occupied after the Six Day War in 1967, continue to be staffed by Arab fire fighters.
This last fire station visit began as had our first—with an invitation for coffee and foods of the area: flat pita bread; tahina, made of sesame seed seeds; falafel, a deep-fried ball of ground garbanzo beans and spices; and fresh cucumbers. Included also was a generous serving of friendliness and hospitality.