Monday, November 01, 2010

Fire Strike: Which Side Will Blink First?

Today sees the second in a series of fire strikes by London firefighters. The third, lasting 47 hours, starts at 10am on Bonfire Night. The two sides are at loggerheads, with neither likely to offer the concessions needed to call it off by the 5th. The union refuses to let the case go to arbitration and won't put its case to the industry dispute resolution panel. That says a lot.

The strike on Bonfire Night threatens to be a PR disaster of massive proportions for both the union and the employers. All it needs is for someone to die and the blame game will start. If no one dies or is seriously injured it will be a massive stroke of good fortune. Last year there were 680 calls to the fire brigade on 5th November, nearly three times the normal rate. If this year it is fewer it will be because people have cancelled their firework parties.

Boris Johnson and Brian Coleman insist the emergency cover by AssetCo's 27 appliances will be able to cope. Bearing in mind there are normally 165 available, and on 5 November they can hardly cope, I think it is fair to say that the Mayor and Chairman of the Fire Authority speak more in hope than expectation.

As I know from my LBC phone ins, ask 20 firefighters why they are on strike and you get at least 15 different answers. Ostensibly it is about the employers' wish to impose relatively minor changes to shift patterns, but the FBU have used it to put about scare stories about future reductions in night cover or a possible reduction in fire appliances.

Coleman has said publicly on several occasions he will guarantee that neither of those will happen. But the union pretends not to hear.

They reckon the shift pattern changes are not conducive to family life and that firefighters wouldn't be able to see their kids. This might have more clout if we didn't know they work 4 days on, 3 1/2 days off, unlike the rest of us who work 5 days on 2 days off. If we're lucky. And we might have more sympathy for that argument if we didn't know that a good proportion of firefighters have second jobs. They maintain they have to, as they can't live on £33k a year. Fair enough, but don't expect us to fall for arguments about family time then.

The leaking of second job figures (and more) to the newspapers is regrettable. I know from experience that this sort of thing happens in industrial disputes in the battle for hearts and minds, but it is so blatant here what is going on and it's the wrong tactic. Demonising firefighters won't work, and nor should it. Whatever misery their union is inflicting, the public won't be persuaded that firefighters are anything other than very brave people indeed. At least, they won't be until they see the consequences of the November 5th strike.

We are entering a very dangerous period for both sides. And I don't think either is going to blink in time to avert what could be a major catastrophe.


A reasonable but angry man said...

A very moderate view, Iain. Perhaps another is that the fire-fighting profession is, by degree, being exposed as the selfish, cossetted, shroud-waving, inefficient national scandal that it has been for a generation. If you're in dire need, better almost anyone turns up to help than a fireman and his H&S advisors, it seems. It won't last.

PJH said...

"The strike on Bonfire Night threatens to be a PR disaster of massive proportions for both the union and the employers. All it needs is for someone to die and the blame game will start."

Do you really think that will bother them?

They are already unrepentant at causing a death through inaction, and say they'd do exactly the same thing again:

An inquest at Kettering coroner's court heard that no firefighters were allowed to enter the water until a specialist water rescue team had arrived. :

Crew boss Kevin Brown said: "It was inappropriate to go in because of temperatures. We only had T-shirts under our fire kits." Fire crews later saved the dog.

"Philip Pells, Northamptonshire fire and rescue service’s head of operations, [said] that fire crews would follow the same policy if a similar situation arose in the future. "

Ian said...

When Merseyside Fire Service went on strike (at least twice in the last fifteen years),the Government sent in the Army.

May I suggest it be made clear this Government would follow the same course of action

Manc boy said...

Let's face facts. Being a fire fighter isn't a terribly dangerous job. Fire fighters are more likely to be killed on the commute to work than they are at work.

If we are to be beholden to heroes because of their fatality rate, let's start a campaign to recognise the heroism of agricultural and construction workers, who are many times more likely to die at work.

Mostly Ordinary said...

As someone who voted for Boris, and even took part in leafleting for him I'm very disappointed how he's allowing Coleman to essentially smear fire-fighters. I'm now considering my vote next time around.

The London Fire Brigade allow their employees to have second jobs, that's why they know what those jobs are. So they obviously don't see it as a risk.

Having worked shifts I can tell you that having shorter night shifts make it easier to have a second job not harder - as Coleman claims.

I'm not sure how you can dismiss the argument that it affects family live when 66% of fire-fighters don't have a second job.

Whatever the merits of the industrial dispute I think we should expect Boris to ensure that his team aren't undermining their own staff that regularly risk their lives for us.

Especially when if one unfortunately died next week both Boris and Brian would be telling us how brave they are.

brian said...

I don't know where this fiction that firefighting is a really dangerous occupation comes from. See here for example:

"even the Fire Brigades Union agrees that being a firefighter is only the UK’s 23rd-most dangerous job"

Forlornehope said...

During the last strike the army provided cover with one third the number of people and fifty year old equipment. There was no increase in casualties over an extended period. The Fire Brigade looks more like a protection racket than a public service.

brian said...

@mostly ordinary:

"Having worked shifts I can tell you that having shorter night shifts make it easier to have a second job not harder - as Coleman claims."

True, if you're actually working. But for firefighters, nightshift is usually the time when they get some shuteye, because unless there's a callout that's what they are allowed to do.

Thorpe said...

It's a pity that the proposed changes (which are being vigorously fought by the FBU) are only nibbling at the edges. Wholesale change is what is needed, although very unlikely to happen.

Personally, I think the whole fire brigade and paramedic forces should be merged, much like the French Sapeurs Pompiers. Astonishing efficiency gains and a better service to the public.

Sres said...

We wouldn't want these poor souls not to miss out on their second jobs...

Michael said...

Iain, the second job figures were NOT leaked, they were legally obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and the Daily Mail says as much.

What WAS leaked however, were the locations of those that did not live in the capital, but were receiving the London weighting allowance.

Mostly Ordinary said...

@ Brian

I lived with a fire-fighter for quite sometime and the night duty isn't really a a good kip. Most of the worse fire and accidents happen at night.

To your point about fire-fighter not having a dangerous job, there is a huge difference from dying in accidents and having a profession that puts you in danger by design. Two fireman have died this year already.

I don't have a view on the rights or wrongs of the dispute but the tone being set towards them if very unpleasant.

Victor, NW Kent said...

Our soldiers in Afghanistan also work many night shifts, cannot have second jobs, are in the most dangerous of professions and see their families every 6 months or so. They also get much lower pay than the firemen.

Oddly, they complain and bitch far less as well.

Henry_Tree said...

"Whatever misery their union is inflicting, the public won't be persuaded that firefighters are anything other than very brave people indeed."

And which public might that be? Certainly not the members of public personally known to me who all seem to hold firefighters in contempt. Perhaps the story from round here of how they refused to enter a disused mine shaft to help a woman who had fallen down it could be part of the reason? They now seem to be a bunch of "assessors" who must assess before doing the job they are very well paid for.

bob said...

Can't live on 30+k?

hmmm, yea, they don't have my support.

Newmania said...

Last year out of a work force of 5600 in London only 15 quit and there were 26 applicants for each post.Thats all I need to know
The risks they run are statistically far lower than those taken by any construction worker and not remotely comparable wit the ordinary soldier who gets sod all.
Worse than all this is the fact they are making fires worse . This year Tony Mc Guirk (Chief Fire Officer Merseyside) , said " We`ve got some bone idle people in the public sector ". The TUC went nuts but the fact is this man started with 2140 fires and 15 deaths in his area and last year had 1300 and 7 respectively
In the meantime they had reduced the numbers from 1400 to 850.

We have to do more with less , everyone else has to, but so long as the Unions stand in the way we are all going to be ripped off and badly served .
Who is going to have the guts to take on the big vested interests , Unite , GMB. They have just bought their puppet Red Ed but thus far Posh Dave is bravely running away.

Jabba the Cat said...

Sack the lot and only rehire them on no strike contracts.

awkwardgadgee said...

33k a year for their shift rota is not bad going, and is why there is a waiting list as long as a fireman's ladder to get into the job.
I have been involved in the provision of new facilities for fireman, including beds for night shift and other rather comfortable appointments;they are hardly pushed a great deal of the time.
Of course it is a tragedy that men die whilst attending fires, but I would bet that more die unheralded on construction sites each year.
Their's is an agreement negotiated under the Labour Gov of the seventies, no wonder they want to keep such fantastic conditions. After all it's only the tax and rate payer who has to fund them.