SUSSEX firefighters held the first 24-hour strike in the three-year national dispute about pensions.
About 200 firefighters walked out of every fire station in the county for the strike, which started at 9am yesterday, as part of an ongoing row between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and Brandon Lewis, Government Fire Minister.
The disagreement centres on the age of retirement for firefighters being raised from 55 to 60.
Yesterday’s action was the 13th strike to be held in ten months.
Firefighters have to regularly complete physically challenging fitness checks to remain on active duty.
Jim Parrott, general secretary for the FBU in the South-East, said: “We want assurances that people in their 50s who fail the medical won’t be sacked, leaving them without a job or a pension.”
The Government published a report in December 2013 which found that, in the worst case scenario, at least 85% of firefighters over the age of 55 would not be able to meet fitness standards set by the force.
Mr Parrott added: “The Government is not listening to our research and they’re ignoring their own investigation.
‘Got it wrong’ “They’ve changed our pensions plans three times in seven years, which shows that they have got it wrong every time.”
Under Government proposals firefighters who retire before the age of 60 if they do not pass a medical will not be entitled to their full pension.
Simon Herbert, chairman of the East Sussex FBU, was at Hove community fire station with striking firefighters yesterday.
He said: “We are fighting for the future of families. Pensions don’t just affect one person, they affect the whole family.
“It’s always difficult to make the decision to go on strike. Everyone standing outside here would prefer to be inside the station protecting people.”
Jamie Roberts, a crew manager at Hove, said: “This is my 20th year. I was expecting to work for another ten.
“Under these proposals I would have to work for another 18 years until I’m 60, assuming I would be able to.
“By the time you’re in your 50s, it’s hard to maintain fitness and health.”
Firefighters at the Hove picket line erected a banner which read: “We save lives not banks.”
A spokesman for West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service said that it recognised the right of its employees to take industrial action.
As of 4.30pm yesterday an East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service spokesman said there had been two minor incidents throughout the day and a small number of false alarms.
They said temporary crews were on duty, made up of mainly retained firefighters.
A spokesman from the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “The Government believes a deal can be reached, but not under the shadow of industrial action, which only stands to damage firefighters’ good standing with the public.
“By disrupting constructive discussions and an open consultation in this way the FBU has once again shown it is not serious about finding a resolution.”
Brandon Lewis met with an FBU representative on June 2 to discuss the pension scheme but they were unable to reach an agreement.
The spokesman from the Department for Communities and Local Government said the Government felt the deal was one of the most generous pensions in the public sector.
‘Not acceptable’ Mr Herbert disagreed, saying: “With the offer as it stands, if you get to 55 and you can’t maintain your fitness and retire, they will take away 47% of your pension.
“Because it’s compounded that would mean £9,000 a year. You pay £4,000 a year into your pension for 35 years and you end up with £9,000 a year.
“That’s just not acceptable after putting your life on the line.”
Before 2010, firefighters contributed one of the highest proportions of their salary towards their pensions, which increased in April for the third year running.
On average firefighters pay more than £4,000 a year from a £29,000 a year salary and the government has announced that it will impose another increase in 2015.
The Government spokesman said: “Nearly three-quarters will see no change in their pension age in 2015.
“Under the new scheme, a firefighter who earns £29,000 will still be able to retire after a full career aged 60, get a £19,000 a year pension, rising to £26,000 with the state pension.
“The equivalent private pension pot would be worth over half a million pounds and would require firefighters to contribute twice as much.”
Firefighters are planning to strike again on June 21 between 10am and 5pm if the issue is not resolved.
FBU members will also not be carrying out any voluntary services between the two strikes.
Their voluntary work includes maintaining fire cover and training new recruits on conduct.
This strike comes after a proposal to remove one in six full-time firefighters and a fire appliance from Brighton and Hove was agreed by the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Authority.
Mr Parrott said: “Firefighters in Sussex have had an incredibly raw deal recently and so have the public.
“We will still challenge the proposals put forward in Brighton as they are dishonest and flawed.”