Merseyside firefighters marching in Liverpool in September 2006 during their strike action against cuts
Merseyside firefighters marching in Liverpool in September 2006 during their strike action against cuts

Merseyside fire crews have branded the latest round of cuts planned for the local fire service as ‘irresponsible and maso-chistic’.

Merseyside Fire Brigades Union (FBU) accused senior managers of testing the limits of health and safety and significantly cutting the number of firefighters.

The FBU says Merseyside fire service has already made more cuts to frontline services than any other fire service in the UK.

While only three per cent of ‘efficiency savings’ were demanded by government, managers on Merseyside forced through cuts of more than 15 per cent.

The figures come from details in an Audit Commission report published before Xmas which said fire services in England had made ‘efficiency savings’ – cuts of £185 million in four years.

Four fire authorities, one of them Merseyside, accounted for more than £62.5 million of that figure, half the total.

According to the government’s own Audit Commission’s official report ‘Rising to the Challenge’, Merseyside made cuts of at least £23.125m over four years, well in excess of the £3.12 million in savings they were expected to make.

It means senior managers, backed by willing councillors, have already made £20 million more cuts than they needed to and more than the £5 million Merseyside bosses say they now need to save.

Les Skarratts, Merseyside FBU brigade secretary said: ‘Merseyside are top of the cuts league, not something we should be proud of.

‘We’re also top of the league for senior managers’ pay, while the number they manage has fallen sharply.

‘The fire authority is now looking at more cuts of £5.3 million.

‘They are already testing the frontiers of health and safety and significantly reduced the numbers of fire crews.

‘This latest round of cuts is masochistic and irresponsible.

‘Councillors appear happy to stand back and see the chief officer make a name for himself as the king of cuts, with yet another wielding of the axe.

‘There is nothing left to cut.

‘Councillors need to take responsibility rather than shirking it and throw these latest plans in the dustbin.’

The FBU quoted ‘Key parts of the Audit Commission’:

Summary – ‘fire services have achieved £185m in annual efficiency savings since 2004’.

‘four fire services account for nearly half of all savings achieved’ (‘this equates to 9 per cent of total expenditure in 2007/08 and is much higher than the original target of £105m annually recurring savings from 2005/06 to 2007/08’ para 26)

The Efficiency Challenge – para 32 ‘while overall efficiency savings targets have been exceeded, just four fire services accounting for around a third of expenditure, have contributed nearly half of the savings achieved to date.

‘Five fire services (GMC, IoW, M’side, Northumberland and Cleveland) have reported efficiency savings equivalent to more than 15 per cent of their total expenditure in 2003/04.’

Para 45 ‘the met with the highest level of savings was Merseyside. . .’

l South Yorkshire firefighters have voted overwhelmingly to keep their current shift system and say it is the most family friendly duty system that gives a good family and work life balance, according to a detailed poll carried out by the FBU.

The union also says it is now clearly emerging from further talks with managers that the real agenda is about cuts to frontline emergency cover.

In the poll, more than 19 out of twenty firefighters (98.25 per cent) said they want the current shift system to remain.

Nearly 19 out of twenty firefighters (93.7 per cent) said moving to a 12 hour duty system would have a massive impact on their family and work-life balance.

The FBU said the recent poll findings showed the concerns expressed by the union were the true voice of South Yorkshire firefighters.

The findings undermine the claims of senior managers that there is little opposition to their plans.

Following further talks new proposals have been put forward by South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service managers.

These will mean significant cuts in the number of firefighters and serious doubts over the claims made by managers about the impact of the proposals.

The complex new proposals mean removing a number of firefighters from the current duty system and placing some of them into a central ‘Operational Resource Team’ (ORT).

All other operational firefighters will be managed by way of an Optimum Resource System (ORS).

The FBU has some serious concerns about the impact of these plans, how they will operate in practice and some of the claims made about the benefits they will bring.

One claim is that there will be a big increase the number of times the correct numbers of firefighters are on duty to respond to emergencies. This optimum number is known in fire service jargon as ‘Confidence Levels’.

The FBU question how this can be achieved when there will be fewer firefighters on duty.

Even with the current number of firefighters, there are still many shifts where fire engines are short of firefighters.

Managers say there are only the correct numbers of firefighters on fire engines on a third of occasions (34 per cent).

The big factors influencing the number of firefighters on duty are vacancies and transfers, which are both controlled by managers. Another big impact is sickness levels which have declined significantly in recent years.

Ian Murray FBU Regional Secretary said: ‘Managers and councillors need to sit up and take note.

‘There are serious concerns across South Yorkshire about these proposals which could have a drastic impact on emergency cover to the public and the well-being of firefighters.

‘The FBU’s poll shows very strong opposition to these changes among firefighters in South Yorkshire.

‘Managers are entirely out of touch and it is pie in the sky for them to continue saying there is little opposition.

‘This is not about shift changes for firefighters but about cutting the levels of emergency cover provided in South Yorkshire to deal with the very wide range of incidents we now attend.

‘This cannot be maintained or improved by cutting the number of firefighters.

‘South Yorkshire fire crews have strong views about this because they know how stretched we have been for long periods of time in recent years.

‘We are an all-round emergency rescue service and there is nothing which can be cut without that having an impact on the public and ourselves.’