Fresh firefighter strikes as MPs look forward to 11% pay rise and festive feast

Firefighters will be striking again this weekend following 3 years of talks over what is an outrageous attack on firefighters and their families futures.

This unelected government is about to oversee an MP pay rise of 11%, over £7000 pounds a year, which will also be going someway to bumping up their gold-plated, taxpayer pension. Incidentally some MPs still receive £3.40 from the taxpayer for every £1 that they pay into their pension scheme. A firefighter gets £1.05 for every £1 they pay in. 

That is because we are in this together I guess.

The firefighters pension contributions have increased by over 3% to over 14%. A firefighter is now paying over £300 a month into a pension, approximately £4000 a year (with an officer paying considerably more than this) and have had a negligible pay rise in the last 7 years – far lower than the price of inflation or the cost of living. With the changes to the normal pension age (rising from 55 to 60) firefighters will now have a 50/50 chance of being able to draw their pension and if they succumb to the natural ageing process, they will face losing 47% of their pension for the privilege.

In the meantime MPs have been using taxpayer money to heat horse stables, pay for and decorate second homes and have left so little for the rest of us that we now have record numbers of children in poverty and there has been a sudden realisation in recent weeks that the majority of people in poverty today already have jobs.

All this comes against the background of the Queen’s statement this year when she said that her government would be “helping people to save for their futures.” Really? Because to the many of her subjects, at present, it looks as though our futures are being stolen from us.

The fire minister Brandon Lewis says in this article that it is not fair for the taxpayer to pick up the burden for the firefighters pension but is it okay for them to pick up the liability for horse stables heating bills or £39 breakfasts? The firefighters pension scheme is NOT financially crippling to the economy, yet Brandon Lewis would have you think that firefighters and their families, are not economically viable. This is a lie.

Brandon Lewis says the issue of a normal pension age of 60 is not an issue for this dispute because it has been the case since the creation of the 2006 firefighter pension scheme; this scheme was sold on the idea of redeployment, for firefighters who cannot do operational tasks any longer that they would be given back room jobs. This has not been the case with less than 20 redeployments across the UK Fire and Rescue Service. Lewis also cites that the police and the armed forces work until 60, so why not firefighters? Well, how many soldiers patrol Helmand or Baghdad at the age of 60? The question should be why should our police or our armed forces have to work until 60? What they both have however is the ability to retrain and so there is scope for redeployment in these services but that does not mean it is RIGHT that they should have a normal pension age of 60.

Since the introduction of the 2006 firefighter scheme, something that has always been opposed by the Fire Brigades Union (and anyone with even a modicum of sense) a report was commissioned by the government, completed by Dr Tony Williams, who states that vast numbers of firefighters will not be fit to do the job between the ages of 55 and 60. To check this, Brandon Lewis looked at 20 (less than half of the English Fire and Rescue Services) fitness policies and said that firefighters could stay operational until the age of 60 no problem. Brandon Lewis based this on the absolute minimum standard fire and rescue services to keep firefighters “on the run” which would mean firefighters would face working to their physical limit every time a fire call came in. There is no margin for error and no safety limit built into the fitness standards Lewis is claiming will help firefighters reach 60. Is this fair on the safety of the public or the firefighters? No, and this year has seen more fire fatalities than at any time since I can remember in the last 7 years and this includes fatalities of both the public and of firefighters.

What is the under pinning theme behind all of this? The recession, created by the banks and the financial sector, but that is a story for another day, what I will say is this: We save people, not banks


Strike action, the last throw of the dice against an oppressive regime.

If you are a writer and you go more than a day without putting pen to paper, or typing some words into a word processor, then it starts to get to you.

People who have been following this blog will know that the media swipes and blogs have dried up in the last couple of weeks but when you are helping to run a dispute and campaign on pension attacks, as well as everything else that is going on locally and nationally, such as library closures and NHS attacks, something has got to give.

Here is an explanation and clarification on why firefighters felt the need to strike on September 25th, following over two years of negotiations between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Government and the Fire Minister Brandon Lewis, but first a comparison and question for everyone;

If you had a mortgage and your provider called you in one day to tell you they are extending it by 10 years and on top of that, they are increasing your payments by 3-5% depending on when you joined it AND they told you that in your final 5 years of payments there is a 66-90% chance that they will take the house back anyway just because of your age, what would you do?

pension theft humberside


Earlier this year Government set the Public Sector Pension bill with a Normal Pension Age (NPA) of 60. This will now apply for all public sector workers and is a one size fits all approach by Government. The FBU nationally and local members tried hard to lobby MPs and Lords to consider an amendment to this bill to allow for a concession on the firefighters. This was rejected and so now the NPA is set at 60.

This move now brings the two concurrent fire service pension schemes into line as is frequently quoted by Brandon Lewis.

To clarify this, the New Firefighter Pension Scheme (NFPS) was brought in by the Labour government in 2006 and had an NPA of 60. This closed the Fire Pension Scheme 1992 (FPS) to new members and replaced the previous NPA of 55. This was opposed by the FBU at the time but due to the laws in this country they were not able to challenge it as you are only able to take action against something that directly affects your members and as it was a new scheme with no one in it their members were not affected.

Leading up to the new NPA for the 2006 scheme the employers were telling the Labour government that the fire service was moving into a brave new world of modernisation, community safety and prevention work. If a firefighter started struggling to cope with the physical demands of the job moving in to their late fifties, they could be redeployed into a back room job.

This has not been the case.

The fire service just does not have the scope for redeployment and when coupled with the privatisation of back room departments such as training, workshops, and community safety and fire safety, these posts just do not exist. To put this into context, less than 20 people have been redeployed since 2006 and once filled, they are gone. There are approximately 40,000 operational firefighters in the UK at present.

This change in the Public Sector Pension Act lead to a change in the trade dispute as due to the law in this country you cannot take any action against legislation, leaving the FBU membership to fight for mitigation of the consequences of this legislation and trying to lobby politically to get the act reviewed and or repealed.

Brandon Lewis knows this but continually states this issue of 60 does not form part of the current trade dispute… That’s because it can’t Brandon!


Fitness – the complicated part!

There is no national standard for fitness in the UKFRS with each brigade varying in their application of being ‘fit for duty’ from standard medial health screening, to actual physical fitness assessments, based on a dated cardiovascular test which said you need a VO2 of 35, plus a 20% safety margin (equating to 42) to fight compartment fires. In old money this is similar to being able to achieve 9.6 on the multi stage shuttle run (bleep test).

VO2 testing measures the rate at which our body can transfer oxygen to your muscles, but is a very specific element of fitness focusing on cardiovascular aerobic capacity, taking no account of strength, flexibility and a key element in terms of the fire service, endurance.

A firefighter is not necessarily tested physically just the once during their shift, but may have to repeat multiple feats of extreme physical exertion throughout the course of their shift. The modernisation approach to the fire service in recent years has seen a shift pattern change from a 9hr day and 15hr night, to a mix and match of traditional systems, 24hr shifts and ‘super day-crewing’ systems, where crews stay on station for 4 consecutive days.

A firefighters ability to repeatedly turn out to incidents is not factored into these current tests.

Brandon Lewis states that firefighters, with 2hrs a week fitness activity will be able to maintain their operational fitness until they are 60.

The fire minster speaks in mixed truths and is at best misleading.

In January a report commissioned by the fire minister, paid for by Government, by Dr Tony Williams to assess whether the NPA of 60 was appropriate. It highlighted a number of concerns and flaws in the government insistence of an NPA of 60 and expressed concerns on firefighters maintaining their fitness at the current standard of 42 VO2 up until the age of 60.

On page 138, para: 11.5.4 Dr Williams stated: “Even though the Government has decided that an increase in pension age across the public sector is reasonable and fair, not all firefighters will be able to maintain their fitness. People do not age at a standard rate, some will find it harder than others to keep physically fit.”

On page 143 Dr Williams states the worst case scenario is firefighters who follow the national average for fitness and body mass index, 85% of firefighters at age 55 would be unfit for duty, rising to 91% by the age of 60. Recent data collected by the government showed that currently 66% of firefighters between 55 and 60 years old are below the minimum standard of 42 VO2.

This story is worse for women in the job who will have to be in the top 2% of athletes to achieve the fitness standard after the age of 55. The report highlights that aging is not standard across the population and recent studies have highlighted the fact that 20% of the population are non responders to fitness training, they can be healthier, but will have no significant improvement on their VO2 level no matter how hard they train.

Interestingly the Government review to this cited that they looked at 20 fire and rescue services fitness policies and stated they were happy that a firefighter would not be dismissed on grounds of capability and fitness as a result. There are 46 FRS in England and Brandon Lewis and his advisors looked at less than half of them. He will find that some services do not have a fitness policy at all.

Those that do have a fitness policy may be working to the 42 VO2 standard with the “at risk” standard of 35 VO2, enabling firefighters to stay operational. Brandon Lewis has reiterated this point many times but fails to mention (or maybe it’s because he did not read that far through the different policies) that if a firefighter can only achieve a 35 VO2, they are put on remedial fitness training, whereby they must show significant improvement towards achieving and attaining the 42 VO2 standard. This timeline is usually set within a few weeks of the initial test. If a firefighter does not achieve the required standard then they risk dismissal on grounds of capability. No job and no pension.

Once again this is exacerbated by Government’s insistence of an NPA of 60 where this will potentially be the rule, rather than the exception.

Brandon Lewis and the government refuse to take ownership of fitness as a national issue and are instead washing their hands of it and deferring to local authorities and firefighters to sort out. A disgraceful and cowardly act.

Norfolk Gorleston 4

The truth – the simple bit

Brandon Lewis and his advisors refused to heed the warnings within their own commissioned study and worse they did not even do the full and thorough work required to get the context on which their statements since on VO2 have hinged on. Lewis and his advisors decided to offer a retirement penalty reduction of initially 51%, eventually reducing this to 21.9% in his final offer, if a firefighter tried to access their pension at age 55 if they started to struggle physically.

Firefighters are not trying to stop people who want to and can work until 60, all they are asking is to not be financially penalised for retiring at 55 on fitness grounds and not to have the very real threat of capability dismissal or no job, no pension hanging over them and their families future. On top of this the Government continue to increase the contribution rates firefighters pay, the highest of anyone in the public or private sector, now set at 13.2%. This is up 5% for those firefighters that joined the NFPS, whose original contribution rate was 8%. These firefighters now pay over £300 a month. I would challenge anyone to run a family with the increase in living costs and pension price hikes like that. Firefighters do not mind paying a little bit more but some are being asked to pay considerably more and face the very real prospect of not even being able to access their pension as a result of their fitness declining naturally with age.

The truth is that firefighters expected the government to come up with an occupational pension scheme, not for them to try to shape the job of firefighting around the pension. It is what it is, dangerous and dirty.

The truth is that everyone in the fire service knows that men and women working into their late 50’s up to 60 is a nonsense, that it is dangerous not only for themselves but for the public. Behind closed doors, politicians know this too, but refuse to admit it in public. Firefighters cannot engage in that lie and this is why they have had to take a stand. They have tried for over 2 years to discuss and negotiate this but the government have shut the door. Firefighters want their government to re-engage with their FBU negotiators to settle this dispute.

They are not asking for more of anything, just asking for fairness. This is not about stating special cases or pitting one set of workers against another, all the attacks on pensions are wrong but the Government commissioned a report on the fire service, the FBU did not call for it and they are refusing to listen to their own arguments.

So going back to the earlier question of what would you do; what would you do?