Christmas strikes for firefighters but Christmas fell on the 25th again this year.

Once again firefighters of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU),will be taking strike action over the long running dispute with the government on changes to their pension contracts. The latest dates are Christmas Eve, 1900-0000, New Years Eve, 1830-0030 and January 3rd, 0630-0830.

Members of the FBU have taken strike action after an 81% yes vote was returned following their summer ballot on the basis that these changes are unnecessary and morally wrong. Normal Pension age (NPA) has been increased from 55 to 60, with the government saying that it brings them in line with the police and armed forces and crucially (in their eyes) the ill thought out New Firefighter Pension Scheme from 2006 which already had an NPA of 60 but was based on redeployment opportunites that never materialised. Some however may say it was based on lies. It had no scientific basis for achievability, just the faint whisper of redeployment if they were to struggle physically.

The firefighter pension scheme already had one of the highest rates of contribution in the public sector before these changes came in and now there has been huge pension contribution increases of up to 3.2% for a firefighter. This means that a firefighter is paying almost £400 a month into a pension that they now only have a 50/50 chance of being able to draw due to the extra years they are being forced to work. This new evidence came from a report paid for and commissioned by the government earlier this year by Dr Tony Williams which stated large percentages of this current workforce will be unable to carry out their duties past the age of 55 due to the fitness requirements to do the job. So now they face the sack, purely on the basis of the natural aging process.

Everyone is suffering at the cost of living and now firefighters and their families face being priced out of a stable future and being old and cold.

How is this being received and reported? The general feelings from the public seem to have been one of understanding. It is always difficult to tell from the social media platforms as trolls love to have their day and there are no bigger trolls than Katie Hopkins who loves a bandwagon, but the reports froms the firefighters themselves from the picket lines have been of overwhelming support (85% of people in a poll by The Guardian supported firefighter strike action over the Christmas period). It seems that the public know it is outrageous to think that every man or woman in the job can do it past the age of 55, the natural aging process can be harsh and when people hear that the pension scheme is contributory they cannot believe how much the firefighters pay.

The mainstream media have however started to close ranks with the government line. No surprises there. Initially the Fire Minister, Brandon Lewis (#fireliar) took a severe grilling from the press during the initial strikes over the fitness and capability issues but the mood now seems to be focusing on the firefighters themselves, with questions such as:

“Fire calls are down, it won’t be arduous will it?”

Statistics can be used to prove anything amd everything they attend is a “fire call”. Closer scrutiny of firelogs will show a drop off in attendance of certain incidents, automatic fire alarms being one. There has been a push by fire authorities to reduce attendances to these calls claiming that they are nearly always a false alarm. There has also been a major up turn in fire calls to incidents of flooding (you may have heard a little something about it on the news recently too). The government have said flooding is the biggest future risk to the UK, firefighters are the ones tasked with responding too and dealing with these incidents BUT the government will not give fire authorities the statutory funding required for equipment and training, instead this comes out of their already squeezed budgets due to cuts. They also attend building collapse (again you may have heard about that in the news recently). So incidents of fire down? Maybe and if so, it is because our firefighters do crucial education and orevention work with kids, families and businesses, but calls to other types of incidents are up, road traffic collisions being one. So if you think you do not use the fire service, think again.

“When was your last major fire?”

Every fire is major to the person that has one and that’s all there is to that. I also think there have been more fatalities, including the public and our firefighters in the past couple of years than previously abd there seems to have been a number of fire fatalities in 2013 particularly. It is interesting to note that the cause of death is recorded differently today by coroners than it was in the past (the time scales the government and authorities use). People who may be rescued from a fire but that die later on in hospital, do not always get recorded as a death by fire. It is complicated and something we will write about in the new year.

“The army and police work until 60, why not you?”

The army and the police do work to 60 now yes, but that does not make it right. Incidentally, how many soldiers have you seen patrolling Helmand or Bagdhad at the age of 50, let alone 60? The difference between the armed forces, police and the fire service is the scope that those services have for retraining and redeployment, something that just is not present in the fire service but as already mentioned, it does not make their NPA right and perhaps we should be seeking to bring that in line with the fire service.

“Why are you striking, it won’t change anything, surely you should be talking?

The FBU have been in discussion with the government for 3 years, they refrained from taking early industrial action on the belief that meaningful, evidence based negotiation would take place. What they have come to find however is that there is a difference between someone hearing what you are saying and actually listening to what you are saying. The FBU have provided a mountain of evidence to disprove the claims on sustainability of the existing scheme, the risk of opt outs if contribution rises continue unchecked and the government handily put forward the fitness argument of their own accord, evidence that has all been thrown on the fire, with a child like fingers in the ears approach. The government have even refused to enter into negotiations with the FBU since October at the time of writing. Firefighters have written to their MPs, councillors, Chief Fire Officers and fire authority chairs, all largely to no avail, as they have closed up shop and towed party line, unwilling to say and do what is right.

Firefighters have been left with no option but to strike and strike they will.

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