Tel Aviv’s First Firefighters

The story of Israel's first fire department

Chen Malul
07.07.2020

Growing up, we all wanted to be firefighters. It’s what we saw on television. We dressed up as firefighters for Purim or Halloween, played with red firetrucks and put out fires with an imaginary hose. We wanted to fight fires and rescue cats stranded in treetops. To be honest, it wasn’t the heroic aspect that was appealing so much as it was the simple fact that firefighters take a great photo. The Tel Aviv firefighters were well-aware of this and gladly went along with the tradition – to no one’s surprise, they were unbelievably photogenic.

Tel Aviv firefighters, 1938, the Photohouse Collection

The city’s merchants were the first to recognize the need and also the first to act: Two large manual fire pumps, two small ones, 200 meters worth of hoses, 50 pails, axes and shovels were donated for the establishment of the first fire department in Israel – the Tel Aviv Fire Brigade.

In its early years, the brigade relied primarily on volunteers. They operated throughout the 1920s – the decade of the brigade’s establishment – improvising as they went along, with no guidance from the authorities. Once they were set up, the volunteers requested that the city council provide them with equipment and funding.

It wasn’t until 1929, when the number of fires in the city rose, that the city council began to allocate funds for the fire brigade. In 1935, a year after the volunteers struggled to extinguish a fire that broke out in the Petah Tikva “Ha’argaz” factory, a special committee was appointed to investigate the state of the city’s firefighting infrasctructure, concluding that a staff of volunteers would no longer suffice; instead, a large-scale fire department was to be built, fully equipped with high-end extinguishing equipment and paid firefighters.

In her book, Surrounded by Light and Sea (Hebrew), Anat Helman notes that “Some of the committee’s conclusions were gradually implemented, and a few years later fires were handled in most part by paid firefighters, while volunteers were left with a secondary role.”

A booklet titled “The Volunteer Firefighter: The Tel Aviv Fire Brigade celebrates its ‘Bar Mitzvah’ anniversary“, (Hebrew) January, 1938. The illustrated graph in thebottom image displays the number of fires in Tel Aviv during the years 1931-1937.

The Tel Aviv fire department was not only busy extinguishing fires and rescuing cats. After the Tel Aviv Police Orchestra shut down, the fire Department Orchestra and the Maccabi Tel Aviv orchestra competed for the public’s affections. In the mid-1930s, the fire brigade won first place in the Tel Aviv orchestra competition.

The volunteer firefighters would also be tasked with providing security for public events. On more than one occasion, they used their fire hoses to disperse protests that had gotten out of hand, a practice that received some harsh criticism from sections of the public.

The Tel Aviv fire department by the water tower on Rothschild Boulevard, the 1920s, the Bitmuna Collection
Tel Aviv’s firefighters, 1938, the PhotoHouse Collection

If you liked this article, try these: When the Egyptians Bombed Tel Aviv Tel Aviv Under Siege: Who Wrote the Mysterious Letter from the Underground? An SS Man, an IDF Officer and a Spy: The Story of Ulrich Schnaft  

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