Essex FBU Fighting Imposed Unworkable Shifts

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Essex FBU control staff on strike against cuts and imposed changes
Essex FBU control staff on strike against cuts and imposed changes

CONTROL staff with the Essex fire service, 95% of whom are women, held a one-day strike on Tuesday (25 August 2015) as part of a dispute over unworkable shifts imposed by Essex fire service managers.

Control staff who once worked family friendly shift patterns are now being forced to work twelve hour day and night shifts. Jo Byrne, executive council member for control staff for the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said: ‘Many young mothers are in effect being told “you can have a career with Essex fire service or a family, but you can’t have both”.’

Control staff were also striking in protest at unprecedented cuts to the front-line fire and rescue service and their employer’s refusal to listen to their solutions to achieving the desired cost savings. Byrne continued: ‘The Essex emergency fire control operators are showing a huge amount of courage. They are demanding that senior managers listen to the professionals who are delivering a fast class emergency public service. We are offering all the financial and efficiency savings required and yet the senior managers are insisting on imposing these changes.’

Tuesday’s strike by control staff was the fifth day of six consecutive days of striking by Essex firefighters, who first walked out on 14 January this year when the service imposed the new family ‘unfriendly’ shift system. The service simultaneously introduced a new state of the art mobilising system that, after what management called teething problems, catastrophically collapsed in May resulting in the system being taken off-line and replaced with the ageing system it was meant to replace.

There is still no date for when the new system will be reintroduced. Calls by the FBU for an inquiry into the failing IT system have fallen on deaf ears. Alan Chinn-Shaw, FBU secretary for Essex, stated: ‘It is incredible that the senior managers have shown contempt for their staff and have been completely intransigent thus far, despite the union’s cost-neutral compromise solutions which match all of the productivity increases the service wishes to achieve.’

l Incidents like the chip shop fire in Llangefni, North Wales, on Tuesday, which saw a delayed response of almost 20 minutes by the fire and rescue service, will become more prevalent if budgets get cut any further, according to the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). The last five years have seen devastating cuts to the fire and rescue service in Wales, with job losses, fire station closures and fire engines taken out of service.

Of particular concern, regarding the Llangefni blaze, is the fact that there was a fire engine stationed at an unmanned fire station in the town, close to the scene. There have been calls for a fire service inquiry into the reasons behind the delay. Shane Price, FBU brigade secretary for North Wales, said: ‘This incident shows what can happen when adequate numbers of firefighters are not available at all times.

‘The service is very reliant on on-call firefighters, who do a great job but who can’t respond as quickly as they would if they were based at a station. ‘The fire service in North Wales urgently needs to mount a campaign to recruit more firefighters – this can be challenging in rural areas such as ours. But this week’s events have shown how critical it now is for firefighters to be available and ready to respond quickly to life threatening incidents.’

Cerith Griffiths, FBU acting regional secretary, said: ‘Whilst the crews who dealt with this incident did so magnificently, it highlights the devastating consequences of fire and the very real need for early intervention. This could have been someone’s home, and at night the outcome could have been far worse – it’s pure luck that it wasn’t. Cuts are decimating the fire and rescue service across the UK, and the fire service in Wales cannot take any further budget cuts. If they do then next time, sadly, there may well be a tragic outcome.’

• FBU Executive Council member for London RegionIan Leahair has expressed concerns about plans to use firefighters to attend medical emergencies instead of NHS paramedics. He said on Wednesday: ‘The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has entered into discussions with our national employers at the National Joint Council (NJC) on a range of topics to discuss new or amended working practices, those discussions remain ongoing.

‘They have included discussions around what is commonly referred to as First/Co-Responding to medical emergencies, this is an area of work that requires a great deal of examination, to ensure the correct level of training, indemnity, resources and response are in place, the FBU also needs to ensure that fire cover would not be compromised by undertaking such work.

‘As the Executive Council Member for the London Region, I remain to be convinced that such a role in the capital is the same as the need in more rural areas, we should not be a substitute for properly trained paramedics, nor should the fire service be used by this Tory government to hide the fact that the NHS is struggling to cope against a background of cuts and under-investment in the ambulance service.

‘Whilst it is recognised that the fire service has reduced the number of emergency calls it attends over the last decade, due in part to the improved fire safety and firefighters’ intervention into community fire safety, we cannot be complacent about the work firefighters do on a daily basis, true the number of fires have reduced, but the number of rescues and large fires remain high and we should not and cannot allow fire cover to be compromised by undertaking new work that may impact further on this.

‘Whilst we look at the work that emergency services do each day, we must ensure that each service retains its individuality, yes we should work more closely with the other services, but we should not fully integrate them, this would only lead to a worse service for those who need us in their time of need. Firefighters retain basic first aid knowledge and in no way can be seen as properly trained paramedics.

‘Members of the public deserve to know that when they call for assistance the right people will respond, with the previous and current government we have seen the number of firefighters, fire stations, police officers and police stations reduced and this must surely have a detrimental impact on both fire cover and policing.

‘Now the government are struggling to employ enough paramedics to deliver the service that is needed, but instead of improving the ambulance service they are seeking to use a sticking plaster to cover a large wound, by calling for firefighters to respond to medical emergencies. The public deserve to have the right people in place at the right time and this can only be achieved with improved investment in each of the three emergency services.

‘Anything less, is a recipe for disaster and we need to ensure that services like the fire service are not starved of funds to make them ripe for privatisation under this government.’