Fire brigade row over HR staff responding to 999 calls during strikes

A row has broken out between the South Yorkshire fire brigade and the local union about training HR staff to respond to 999 calls if firefighters go on strike.

This week it emerged 20 South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue support staff – including HR and finance – are spending two days on an advanced level driver training course, and another two days learning how to drive under blue light conditions, so that they can drive fire service vehicles.

The fast-track training is part of the brigade’s contingency plans to help keep fire engines on the road, in case a dispute with firefighters over planned changes to working hours escalates from a current overtime ban to an all-out strike.

Firefighters at the brigade were last week balloted for strike action, which if successful, could see a series of stoppages begin next month. The station already claims that overtime bans were leading to fire engines not being used.

But John Gilliver, South Yorkshire Fire Brigade Union (FBU) brigade chair, told Personnel Today this was no excuse to take “irresponsible” action.

“It is totally irresponsible of management to put this kind of pressure that firefighters in South Yorkshire endure on support staff,” he said. “First of all, the pressure of keeping their jobs is put on them; if people said no it may have consequences. Second, the pressure of responsibility to the public.”

South Yorkshire brigade, however, said the only reason it was being forced to use support staff was because of the industrial action threatened by the FBU. A spokesman said: “It wouldn’t be necessary if the FBU wasn’t putting lives at risk by taking firefighters off duty. The [support staff] training is purely voluntary and they are only driving, not firefighting. Those people willing to do this deserve full support and recognition.”

He added: “The FBU overtime ban is already putting lives at risk. We need to do everything possible to make sure we are able to respond to 999 calls, and using support staff will help maintain the service.”

Area manager Dave Kiddy, head of emergency response for South Yorkshire fire service, added the brigade was, by law, required to maintain a business continuity plan for when firefighters may be out of action, whether caused by industrial action or flu.

The possible strike action is centred around all 740 officers in South Yorkshire being issued with redundancy notices that would force them to sign contracts with new working hours in January. The new terms would see day and night shifts equalised at 12 hours each. Firefighters currently work nine-hour day shifts and 15-hour night shifts.

Plans to use support staff to help respond to emergency calls could spread rapidly across the country as industrial action escalates in response to a series of disputes over jobs, pay and conditions. Last month, Merseyside withdrew four fire engines from the frontline to prepare staff for possible strike action.

A spokesman at Merseyside told Personnel Today: “We had a strike in 2006 during which non-uniformed personnel were trained to put out small rubbish fires that weren’t near buildings or people. We’d do this again in another strike. I think it’s terrific that support staff can help respond to emergencies, as long as they’re properly trained and not asked to do something they’re not trained to do.”

The FBU is planning a national lobby of parliament on 28 September.

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