West Midlands firefighters strike looms – over 300 jobs threatened

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FBU members from the Midlands with their banner on last October’s TUC demonstration against austerity
FBU members from the Midlands with their banner on last October’s TUC demonstration against austerity

FIREFIGHTERS in the West Midlands have warned they could be forced to take industrial action over plans to cut 300 firefighting posts, leaving the service understaffed, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) warns.

The proposed cuts to West Midlands Fire Service would mean it would have to rely on the ‘pure goodwill’ of firefighters to work non-obligatory overtime shifts to make sure fire engines can be mobilised to emergencies. This development comes as the nationally agreed overtime rate that firefighters are paid of ‘time and a half’ has been replaced with a flat rate.

It is believed that this will make overtime shifts less attractive, increasing the likelihood of staff shortages, which will in turn put public safety at risk. Steve Price-Hunt, secretary of the FBU in the West Midlands, said: ‘Industrial action is always a last resort and we hope it doesn’t have to come to that. But we cannot just let these dangerous cuts that could put fire engines out of action go through.

‘I became a firefighter to serve the public and protect people from harm. That’s the case for every firefighter serving in the West Midlands and the rest of the UK. We cannot just stand by and watch plans be implemented that we know will endanger the public.’

West Midlands Fire Service have said the 300 firefighting posts earmarked to go will come from what they term ‘natural wastage’, meaning firefighters who retire or leave the job will not be replaced.

Commenting, Price-Hunt said: ‘Our concern here is all about the safety of the public and the safety of firefighters responding to those emergencies.

‘These proposals leave firefighters without proper shift systems. Managers are dangerously gambling on the goodwill of firefighters to fully staff the service. We hope managers at the fire service will now begin to re-evaluate these ill-thought out plans.’

Meanwhile, Northumberland firefighters have expressed grave concerns at the scale of cuts announced by Northumberland County Council, saying they will have a significant impact on the level of risk facing the public and firefighters.

Northumberland County Council announced cuts impacting across the entire county, with Haydon Bridge fire station set to close, and the loss of a fire engine at West Hartford. Fire engines at Alnwick, Wooler, Seahouses and Ponteland are to be replaced by smaller vehicles, but no details are available as to what kind of capacity these vehicles will have.

There is to be a total reduction of over 25% in the current fleet of front-line fire engines available to protect the public of Northumberland. The cuts announced yesterday by the County Council still have to go through the Authority and public consultation to determine what the proposals will mean for public safety.

Guy Tiffin, secretary of the FBU in Northumberland, said: ‘Firefighters across Northumberland are shocked and deeply concerned at the level of cuts announced and the impact they will have on the safety of the public and firefighters. Northumberland is one of the most rural counties in England with extended times for the arrival of fire appliances to incidents.

‘These reductions exacerbate this problem. The residents of Northumberland are literally facing a postcode lottery in terms of a quick response to a fire or other rescue incident. These cuts are neither an intelligent use of resources nor based on the risk across the county. These cuts are based on the slash and burn culture of the Conservative government who are not prepared to resource and fund fire and rescue services appropriately.’

Steve Walker, Brigade Chair for the FBU in Northumberland, said: ‘Every second counts when firefighters are called upon to respond to an emergency incident. We understand the financial restrictions being placed on Northumberland County Council by the current government, but the fire service in Northumberland simply cannot absorb these reductions following years of being cut beyond the bone. This has to stop or people are going to die needlessly. It is already happening in some areas of the country.’

Elsewhere, cuts and closures imposed by Tory London Mayor Boris Johnson have been blamed for the death of an elderly man in a fire, the FBU has said. On Monday 26 October a fire broke out at a property in Camden Road but firefighters from Kentish Town fire station, the nearest to the scene, were unavailable as they were tackling another large fire on Finchley Road. As a result, London Fire Brigade were forced to mobilise fire crews from as far afield as Soho, Shoreditch, Lambeth and Stanmore resulting in a wait of 13 minutes before making it to the scene – more than double the six minute response time target.

By the time the fire engines arrived from Soho, the pensioner had already either jumped or fallen from his window and had died. The longstanding Camden based Belsize fire station, one of the 10 stations closed in the capital by Johnson in 2014, may have been able to mobilise fire crews to Camden Road in time to save the man’s life, said FBU London regional secretary Paul Embery.

‘Boris Johnson has got serious questions to answer after this tragedy’ he said. Last year, he forced through massive cuts in the London Fire Brigade, and we warned him that it would lead to longer response times and jeopardise public safety. It is not nice to be proved right.

‘His cuts meant that the brigade’s response to this incident was severely delayed. Closing fire stations and slashing firefighter jobs costs lives. It is scandalous that the safety of Londoners is being sacrificed because of the mayor’s fixation with cost-cutting. Last year alone 600 frontline firefighter jobs were slashed.’

Meanwhile, Fire Brigades Union leader Matt Wrack has blogged: ‘This isn’t a good time to be a firefighter. Or a trade unionist. We are looking at more cuts to our service, a possible takeover by police and crime commissioners (PCCs), four more years of a virtual pay freeze, and severe restrictions to our trade union rights in the form of the Trade Union Bill which had its third reading in Parliament today.

‘If there was ever a time that we need to stand up and be counted and fight against these terrible attacks on our professionalism, our livelihoods, our rights and on public safety, that time is now. We need you to get out there and say: “No, we aren’t standing for this. Enough is enough.”

Campaign together

‘In many ways the attacks we are facing are the same as those facing millions of other workers and trade unionists. That is why it will be far better if we can campaign together. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has union affiliations representing some 6.5 million workers.

‘If those could be mobilised together on the issues we are all facing then the Westminster government would face serious opposition. History shows that it is possible to force governments to retreat, change direction – or stand down. That is the scale of the task we face.

Rights under attack

‘The FBU gave evidence to the Trade Union Bill committee in October alongside four other trade union general secretaries. ‘Five of us were given just 35 minutes between us to make the case against the Bill, and most of my time was spent rebutting allegations made by the London Fire Brigade about firefighters’ behaviour on picket lines in 2010.

‘Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Tory-supported health outfit 2020 Health, Julia Manning, was allocated 30 minutes all to herself to make the case for her group and to argue against trade unions. Funny, that.

Recall conference

‘The FBU is organising a one-day recall conference in late November in Blackpool. This will be discussing the impact of austerity on our union structures and organisation and the future of our political strategy, including our relationship with the Labour Party. This is a debate in our union where there will be a range of views. It is through democratic discussion and dialogue that we hope to reach the best position for all of us.

Lobbying against cuts

‘The union recently lobbied at Westminster against further cuts. This was in advance of the Comprehensive Spending Review, in which the chancellor will announce spending plans for the next three years. We have made a strong and evidence-based case for investment in our service, not cuts.The lobby was attended by delegates from every fire and rescue service across the UK. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell didn’t let us down at our lobby in parliament in October, showing up at the very last minute to lend support.’