No deal as firefighters hold out

The firefighters dispute over their union’s 40 per cent pay claim is now
entering its third month with little sign of a resolution. Paul Nelson talked
to employers and firefighters on both sides of the picket line

The employer’s view

HR professionals in the fire service believe it is in desperate need of

They have criticised the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) for refusing to commit to
reforms and support the Government for standing firm and linking any
inflation-busting pay rise of more than 4 per cent to modernisation.

Anne Smith, HR manager at Warwickshire Fire & Rescue Service, backed the
findings of the independent inquiry into the fire service’s pay and working
practices led by Sir George Bain.

Bain recommends that HR should be mainstreamed to drag the service away from
its militaristic origins to one of a best practice organisation.

He calls for shift patterns to be overhauled to incorporate flexible working
in a bid to improve the diversity of the workforce, for retained (part-time)
firefighters to work alongside their full-time counterparts, and for the
overtime ban to be lifted.

Under the recommendations firefighters would also be trained in paramedic

Smith described the Bain review as "a fair conclusion of the fire
service today".

She believes it is the perfect opportunity for reform and cites her time as
a HR professional in the Police service, when it transformed its work culture
to create a more family-friendly environment, as proof that change is

The FBU has so far refused to co-operate with the Bain review and dismissed
all recommendations, especially changes to shift patterns and lifting the
union’s ban on overtime.

Smith believes that the union is wrong not to embrace the findings.

"The FBU must realise that modernisation may mean changes to the shift
patterns that it holds so dear," she said. "Changes are the only way
to increase the diversity of the force. The fire service is still a white,
male-dominated arena. To change we must change shift patterns and plan
resources to best suit the system."

Employers believe the reason the FBU is opposed to changing the
‘four-days-on, four-days-off’ shift pattern is because a lot of its members use
the extensive time off to do second jobs.

A report published last week claimed local authority employers estimate that
four out of five of London’s 5,800 firefighters have second jobs, with more
than 500 earning around £150 a day as part-time taxi drivers.

One HR professional in the fire service, who refused to be named, said
employers were aware that a lot of staff have other jobs and that the reason
the FBU is against changes to shift patterns was because it would make this
practice difficult to continue.

David Willingham, personnel manager at Humberside Fire Brigade, agreed:
"It is common knowledge that firefighters do have second jobs. The shift
pattern that gives staff four days off is very conducive to that.

"If things were changed it would mean shorter shifts and the
implication is that it would encroach on that four-day block of free

Shift pattern changes would introduce local flexibility to rostering and
allow HR to use resources more efficiently.

Greater Manchester County Fire Service’s personnel manager Peter Brook said
lifting the overtime ban would help to drive down costs.

"We have the technology and knowledge to know what each station’s busy
and quiet times are, but we do not have flexibility of staff to use that. The
shift pattern changes will introduce a flexibility to the service," he

Bain recommendations

– HR to be mainstreamed

– Shift pattern overhauled to include flexible working

– Paramedic training for firefighters

– Full- and part-time staff to work together

The firefighters’ view

Firefighters’ worst fears were realised last week when the Government
announced that job cuts would be an inevitable part of the modernisation

In a House of Commons speech last week, Deputy Prime Minister
John Prescott said the modernisation of the service was the perfect opportunity
to trim the workforce.

He proposed using ‘natural wastage’ – not replacing the 10,000
firefighters due to retire over the next three years – to cut the size of the
52,000 workforce by 20 per cent.

Andrew Dodgson, firefighter and union representative at Sutton
Fire Station in Surrey, believes the job cuts would undermine the effectiveness
of the service and plans for modernisation.

"We are not afraid of modernisation – I have been in the
service for 20 years and it has continued to modernise – but the Government
wants jobs cuts," he said.

"I am totally opposed to overtime as it will put a freeze
on recruitment. The Government will run the service down to 70 per cent of its
workforce and use overtime to make up the shortfall."  

The announcement over possible job cuts appears to have
hardened firefighters’ support for the dispute just as their commitment to the
union’s 40 per cent pay claim was wavering.

But the 16 per cent offer negotiated between employers and the
FBU – involving four pay increases over the next 12 months – that was blocked
by John Prescott at the last minute, would be enough to end the dispute.

Firefighter Rowan Saunders said he would accept the offer, but
wants to see firefighters among the top earners in the public sector within
three years.  

"I would say 99 per cent of the workforce thinks that 40
per cent is unrealistic," he said. "If we were offered 16 per cent we
would be straight back to work."

Dodgson agreed: "We would like 40 per cent, but we are
realistic. It is a bargaining tool that we have proved we are prepared to budge

The firefighters also claimed to support Sir George Bain’s
recommendations on modernisation.

Keith Perks, sub-officer at the Sutton station, would be happy
to accept the report’s recommendations to introduce new shift patterns and
overtime – as long as it was voluntary. He also backed paramedic training.

"I would not object to changes in working patterns,"
he said. "I have two kids – a boy of eight who I miss playing football
every weekend and a girl who is in a lot of plays that I miss. I would rather
be at home with the kids."

"I would be happy to do paramedic training as long as it
did not replace paramedics as I trained as a firefighter. We would deal with
medical emergencies if we were first on the scene."

Hot off the press: more strikes

At the time Personnel Today went to press there was no sign of a resolution
to the dispute.

The employers and the union had no concrete plans for new talks
and neither side appeared optimistic of an early settlement.

A spokesman for the Employers’ Organisation for Local
Government said: "We are meeting at joint secretarial level to exchange
notes on where we are. We have no proposals to put to the FBU at this stage.

"We are working with the Government on the formulation of
a new proposal. We will be inviting the FBU to suspend the next strike to allow
for technical work to continue unimpeded by the dispute."

However, it appeared likely that the second of three planned
eight-day strikes starting tomorrow would go ahead.

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