Firefighters vote to strike

By Craig RobinsonTHE military could be called in to Suffolk to help the county deal with two fire strikes next week - although talks may still be able to avert the action.

By Craig Robinson

THE military could be called in to Suffolk to help the county deal with two fire strikes next week - although talks may still be able to avert the action.

The announcement came last night after it was revealed that the region's fire brigade union had voted to take industrial action over plans to cut 12 frontline emergency response firefighter posts.

Fire crews voted two to one in favour of strikes between 7am and 10am on August 2 and 5pm and 7pm on August 5.

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The decision for strike action was made after Suffolk County Council said the 12 turntable ladder crewing jobs in Bury St Edmunds would be scrapped under the new Integrated Risk Management Plan.

A total of 68% - 155 out of 227 - of the region's firefighters decided to take industrial action, meaning that Ministry of Defence replacements could be drafted in next week to provide cover.

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Lee Howell, chief fire officer and director of public protection for Suffolk Fire Service, said: “A formal approach has been made to central government for assistance in dealing with a strike and it looks like it has been treated positively.

“At the moment it is only a provisional agreement but we are expecting Ministry of Defence firefighters in red fire engines to be used rather than Green Goddesses.

“It is obviously a regrettable situation, however we are dedicated to providing the very best level of service that we can for the public in these difficult times.

“Clearly strikes will leave us short in areas where there are more Fire Brigades Union (FBU) members and therefore the military assistance will be based in the major towns of Lowestoft, Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich.

“But 23 out of 35 stations in Suffolk are retained and early indications are that they will be available as well as middle to senior ranking officers who are not members of the FBU.”

He added: “The lines of communication are still open and we are working quite closely with officials from the FBU to maintain a constructive dialogue.”

The FBU claims the cuts at Bury St Edmunds are based on a flawed plan for fire safety and will mean that specialist rescue equipment will not be available at all times.

Suffolk FBU chairman Vince Jell warned: “We do not want to take strike action but these are significant cuts based on a deeply flawed and dangerous safety plan.

“Suffolk has one of the largest areas at risk from fires in England but spends less on the fire service than all other fire authorities.

“We only have 45 frontline emergency response firefighters on duty at any time and we are short of 67 retained firefighters. The fire authority has slashed its community safety budget by two-thirds in the last few years. They have cut behind the scenes and now they want to cut the frontline emergency response role.”

However, Joanna Spicer, Suffolk County Council portfolio holder for public protection, assured the public that the money saved through the changes would be reinvested in fire safety.

“I am aware that this proposal is unpopular with our FBU but I can't emphasise enough that these are not cost-cutting measures,” she said.

“We are not getting rid of the turntable ladder, because it is a useful bit of equipment. We are just changing how we crew it.

“As a result there will no longer be a dedicated team of 12 manning the ladder but now all firefighters, as well as retained firefighters, will be trained to deploy it.

“The same system is used in Bedfordshire, Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire, so we're not breaking any new ground.”

Of the 12 posts being axed, three personnel have been lost through retirements, while four will be used to give fire safety guidance to members of the public.

Three others will be redistributed to support retained firefighters in stations that might not otherwise be able to open because of a lack of personnel and the final two will be used for data analysis, identifying trends and formulating strategic policy. All posts will be full time.

Ms Spicer added: “The turntable costs £360,000 a year to fund and was only called out 19 times in the last 12 months and none of these were to rescue someone from a fire.

“As a result the money saved by removing a full-time crew is going to be reinvested and channelled into other areas such as fire prevention and recruitment, which we have already started.”

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