EIGHT days of firefighter strikes begin today as crews across the county walk out over cuts to pensions. HENRY HOLLOWAY looks at the ongoing dispute between union chiefs and government bosses.
FIREFIGHTERS will be carrying out eight days of strike action as they continue their three year campaign to stop “vicious” and “unacceptable” slashes to pensions.
Members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) from both East and West Sussex Fire and Rescue Services will be heading to the picket line for four hours each day for the extended period of industrial action.
Two hundred firefighters who are members of the FBU will be walking out today – with periods of action taking place every day for the next week as members walk out from every fire station.
The strike is the longest period of action since the start of the pensions dispute last year.
FBU bosses have said the unions have felt “no joy” from the Government in discussions over the cuts - set to be implemented in April 2015.
Unions believe they have no choice but to step-up industrial action.
Jim Parrott, regional executive council member of the FBU and a Brighton resident, said: “The strike action before was to keep the issue in the public’s attention and to keep pressure on Brandon Lewis, under secretary of state at the department for communities and local government, to produce a review of opt outs and fitness capability.
Mr Parrott said the review has been done “and they have confirmed our concerns – but the government is not addressing them, they are ignoring them”.
He said: “We put forward further suggestions within their cost ceiling and the Government is failing to do anything so we have no choice but to escalate strike action.
“We have made it very clear to Mr Lewis that if the Government comes back with meaningful talks and proposals we will stop action.
“The action we are taking is to try and limit the impact on the public but we have been left with no alternative – we have put forward all reasonable proposals and they have put forward nothing.”
This latest action marks the longest period firefighters will have walked out during this current campaign and their sixteenth period of action.
Simon Herbert, East Sussex chairman of the Fire Brigades Union, said despite the fatigue of this year’s strikes, spirits remained high among members and they are “prepared that this could drag on and we are not going anywhere”.
He said the “determination” and “strength” among the union members is “just as strong as it ever was”. Firefighters also joined the mass public sector walkout on Thursday last week – demonstrating shoulder to shoulder with other unions.
Mick Cambers, West Sussex FBU chairman, has said previously there is “strength in numbers” and that the firelighters want to keep the issue in the public eye.
Chief fire officer and chief officer of the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, Des Prichard, reassured people they would be safe during the strikes and urged residents to “look out for each other”.
He said: “We know there is a really strong sense of community in East Sussex and the city of Brighton and Hove. We hope that people will look out for each other, will take action to make their homes, businesses and workplaces safer as well as pass on our advice to others.
“We will have contingency crews on duty but obviously this is a smaller number of staff than on a non-strike day. We will respond to life threatening incidents but want to make sure we also reduce the number of smaller incidents such as bonfires or false alarms caused by faulty equipment.
“If you do have an automatic alarm, make sure it is functioning properly, that you know who is in charge of it and you know what to do if it goes off.
“Lifts are another area of concern. Make sure there are clear instructions inside the lift just in case it breaks down. Have the lift engineers number to hand and check when it was last serviced.”
A spokesman for West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service said: “West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service has robust contingency plans in place in the event of a strike.
“However, during any period of industrial action the service would have fewer resources available and would be prioritising life-threatening incidents such as house fires and road traffic collisions where people are trapped.
“You should still dial 999 in an emergency but you can help by reducing the demand on emergency services, especially during industrial action. The message to residents, businesses, and people travelling in West Sussex during any possible strike action is to take extra care.”
REASONS FOR STRIKE The FBU argues that new pensions will mean all members will “pay more, work longer and get less”
A spokesman for the union said before 2010 firefighters already contributed one of the highest proportions of their salary towards their pensions – yet their contribution keeps rising.
During negotiations with the FBU, the government in Westminster imposed a third annual increase in firefighters’ pension pay-ins, taking them to 14.2% for most firefighters — one of the highest in the public or private sector.
This means that a firefighter with a salary of less than £29,000 now pays around £4,000 a year for a pension that is being “devalued” and “attacked”, they say.
The Government has also issued proposals for a fourth-year increase for many firefighters.
A recent report into firefigther fitness by the University of Bath stated higher fitness levels are required for action than those set out by the Government to defend the idea of firefighters working until they are aged 60.
The FBU states this “undermines” government proposals on keeping firefighters working until retirement at 60.
The current firefighters’ retirement age is 55.
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “The Government must realise that firefighters cannot accept proposals that would have such devastating consequences for their futures, their families’ futures — and the future of the fire and rescue service itself.
“We have tried every route available to us to make the Government see sense over their attacks.
“Three years of negotiations have come to nothing because the Government is simply unwilling to compromise or even listen to reason despite a huge amount of evidence showing their planned scheme is unworkable.
“Shorter strike periods have illustrated the strength of feeling among firefighters whilst limiting disruption to the fire service, the public and our members’ working lives.
“But the Government is merely ploughing ahead, forcing firefighters to react.”
The FBU points to firefighters in Northern Ireland who have been offered the chance to maintain a retirement age of 55 – arguing this demonstrates the Westminster government’s position is not justified by evidence or lack of affordability.
Mr Wrack said: “The offer in Northern Ireland was achieved through negotiation without any industrial action being necessary.
“This clearly shows that if both sides are willing to talk, things can be resolved.
“This makes a mockery of the Government’s claims that the union is walking away from talks.”
SAFETY FEARS Union bosses have expressed concern over the fire service’s ability to keep people safe during the walkouts.
While both of the county’s fire and rescue services have assured people they will be safe and urged people to keep extra vigilant, union bosses have slammed their contingency plans.
Jim Parrott, regional executive council member of the FBU, said: “They do have resilience arrangements in place but we have raised concerns about the standards of training of these contingency crews.
“They are probably pulling in senior managers from desk jobs with limited amounts of retraining.
Mr Parrott spoke about the Marlie Farm fire tragedy near Lewes which claimed the lives of two firefighters.
“Our big concern is with their planning overall, we have still not seen resolution to the Marlie Farm incident and all the very weak areas that exposed.
“It exposed negligence in their planning for places where explosives are stored – and if that is weak then their whole risk management plan is poor.
“We urge the public to be extra vigilant but also to apply pressure on their MPs and their fire authority officers.
“We want to put pressure on the fire authority to look at their contingency plans and not to cut fire services.”
Both services have assured the public the service will be able to keep them safe and they urged the public to be extra vigilant. FIRE SERVICE ADVICE Both East and West Sussex Fire and Rescue Services have offered their advice on how to stay safe during the strikes.
Using their SAFE system East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service has offered their advice.
Smoke alarms save lives – fit them properly and test them regularly Avoid distractions – whether behind the wheel, out and about or cooking, paying attention helps keep you safe Family and friends might need help – check in on them and share our advice Escape routes should be planned and explained to everyone in your home People are being asked to help spread safety messages ahead of the strike.
You can also follow their advice on Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter: https://twitter.com/EastSussexFRS Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/eastsussexfireandrescue Additional safety advice can be found at www.esfrs.org STRIKE TIMES AND DATES Monday, July 14: 6am–8am and 5pm–7pm. Tuesday, July 15: 6am–8am and 5pm–7pm. Wednesday, July 16: 6am–8am and 5pm–7pm. Thursday, July 17: 6am–8am and 5pm–7pm. Friday, July 18: 6am–8am and 11pm–1am. Saturday, July 19: 11am–1pm and 11pm–1am. Sunday, July 20: 5pm–7pm. Monday, July 21: 6am–8am and 5pm–7pm.