Ballot papers are going out to Essex fire crews this week in a strike vote over unnecessary frontline cuts and changes imposed without agreement.
The ballot started on Wednesday, 23 May, and closes on 13 June. The law then requires at least seven days notice of any strike action after that date.
Essex Fire Brigades Union was on Tuesday writing directly to Councillor Tony Hedley, chair of Essex fire authority, seeking his agreement to lift the block on allowing the national fire service conciliators and ACAS to work together on a possible way forward for conciliated talks.
The union says the ballot is necessary because the fire authority is imposing changes whilst also planning further cuts.
100 full-time fire station-based crews have been axed since 2008 with retained ‘on call’ crews cut by 60. Further cuts now being planned will bring total losses of around one in five frontline firefighters since 2008.
Backroom staffing has risen by 7.5 per cent – from 238 in 2008 to 256 today.
The latest budget review shows underspends of £1.3 million on wholetime firefighters, £206,000 on retained and £136,000 on control firefighters.
Mick Rogers FBU brigade secretary said: ‘Essex fire crews are furious at what is going on and will be giving their verdict on cuts and imposed changes.
‘Managers need to get their heads out of the sand and realise the strength of feeling.
‘There is still time enough to resolve the issues between us and we are now asking the Chair to the Fire Authority to use his good offices to remove the barriers to serious talks getting under way.
‘But if there is no genuine intention or positive moves to resolve the very real concerns of the frontline professionals then strike action becomes an ever-increasing prospect.
‘Essex fire crews are united and very determined on this matter. This is not the small group of disgruntled militants the chief’s PR team is suggesting, but a huge swell of opposition.
‘No firefighter ever wants to take strike action but it will happen if things go on like this.
‘I’d urge the Fire Authority to wake up, understand the strong views of their own crews and kick start talks to resolve this dispute.’
Meanwhile, South Yorkshire fire crews will ballot for industrial action ‘short of strike’ at this time, in a dispute over frontline cuts and management-imposed changes to terms and conditions.
The Fire Brigades Union on Tuesday gave the fire authority seven days’ notice to reverse or remove a range of cuts to frontline crewing.
The cuts include closing four fire stations, losing full-size fire engines crewed by four firefighters and replacing them with vans crewed by two firefighters, introducing a new duty system that will see firefighters being on duty at the fire station for 96 continuous hours, reducing the number of emergency fire control operatives as well as introducing new policies without agreement.
FBU brigade secretary John Gilliver said: ‘Frontline cuts have got to stop and we need to start filling vacancies.
‘Fire crews have shown they can agree to be flexible to protect the front line but these cuts are going too far and we have serious concerns regarding the safety of the public and firefighters in South Yorkshire.
‘As well as frontline cuts, senior managers have been imposing changes to our members’ terms and conditions without agreement and now firefighters in South Yorkshire have said enough is enough.
‘We thought we’d moved away from this type of behaviour by senior managers following the last dispute being resolved and a change of management at the very top but it appears we are heading back down the same route.’
Further south, fire crews across Cambridgeshire warned ahead of yesterday’s Fire Authority meeting they stand ready to respond with industrial action if the Fire Authority agreed to make dangerous cuts to the frontline service.
The cuts have been drawn up by Cambridgeshire’s fire chiefs in anticipation of yet further cuts in central government funding.
Firefighters called on all members of the Cambridgeshire Fire Authority to add their voices to those who have already spoken out against the slash-and-burn cuts agenda being driven by the coalition government.
The campaign seeks the support of the county’s MPs, the public they are supposed to represent and other local trade union members.
The FBU warns that the package of frontline cuts being drawn up by managers would see all areas of the county affected, including plans to close and downgrade fire stations, the loss of specialist rescue vehicles to deal with high rise emergencies and road traffic accidents, and more cuts in the numbers of frontline firefighters, control staff and officers employed.
The union warns such frontline cuts will inevitably mean the public waiting longer for fire crews when they dial 999.
Adrian Clarke, FBU Regional Secretary, said on Tuesday: ‘This could not have come at a worse time for Cambridgeshire firefighters who have already made personal sacrifices to maintain frontline 999 services.
‘Only last week fire crews reluctantly accepted the introduction of a new duty system with fewer firefighters employed overall to serve at frontline fire stations.
‘In accepting the new duty system, fire crews made it absolutely clear we expect the fire authority to recognise their significant sacrifice in terms of their own working conditions, working hours and domestic arrangements and in return we expect the fire authority to oppose any more frontline cuts.
‘Our members’ sacrifice has been to protect the current frontline service we provide to the people of Cambridgeshire and the current safety systems for firefighters, despite the coalition government’s cuts passed on to us by CRFS.
‘Now we expect all councillors on the fire authority to stand together in campaigning for vital funding to protect the life-saving service our members provide for the taxpayers of Cambridgeshire.
‘We remain wholly opposed to any frontline cuts and blame the coalition government for the disastrous cuts in our funding in Cambridgeshire.
‘We call upon all the local politicians and taxpayers to join us in lobbying central government for extra funding and not to punish our county for being so frugal in the past.
‘We simply cannot absorb cuts without directly affecting our life-saving, frontline service in the way the government suggest we can.
‘People thought David Cameron’s pledge to “protect frontline services” meant exactly that but if their MPs will not step up to the mark and fight for their communities then firefighters will.
‘One thing we know for certain is that social deprivation and fire go hand in hand and therefore the most vulnerable in our society, including the elderly, children and lowest paid, will be put at the greatest risk if these cuts go ahead.
‘Thanks to their comparative position of privilege, few if any of our county’s or cities’ MPs will be put at the same risk. The worst they may expect is to lose their seat when they are next up for election, whilst those they are elected to represent could lose their lives.
‘Firefighters pledge when they join the service to protect and preserve life sometimes at the cost of their own and they will hold to that pledge and stand ready to fight if the elected fire authority members and MPs fail to do so.’