Firefighters strike over pensions

Fire Brigade Station closedFirefighters across England and Wales will strike today in a bitter row over pensions.

Members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) will walk out for four hours from noon, the first national stoppage for a decade.

The union is campaigning against changes it says will mean firefighters will have to work longer, pay more into their pensions and receive less in retirement.

The move will also see firefighters having to work on frontline duties until they are 60, the union argued.

The Government maintained that the changes were fair and would still give firemen and women decent pensions when they retire.

Fire brigades have drawn up their own contingency plans to deal with the strike because military Green Goddess machines, which have been used as cover in previous disputes, are no longer available.

They have been sold by the Ministry of Defence to countries including Malta.

Some brigades, such as London and Surrey, are hiring private contractors to stand in for striking firefighters, but the public has been warned that some non-emergency calls will not be answered.

The London brigade, which is using 27 fire engines during the period of the strike, said calls about flooding, trapped animals and rubbish fires will not be answered.

Almost 80% of FBU members voted in favour of industrial action in a ballot that ended earlier this month, although union officials said they left the strike to the last possible moment to allow for the possibility of a negotiated settlement.

General secretary Matt Wrack said: "This initial strike is a warning shot to government. Firefighters could not be more serious about protecting public safety and ensuring fair pensions. Governments in Westminster and Cardiff have simply refused to see sense on these issues.

"It is ludicrous to expect firefighters to fight fires and rescue families in their late 50s: the lives of the general public and firefighters themselves will be endangered.

"None of us want a strike, but we cannot compromise on public and firefighter safety."
Firefighters in Scotland will not be joining the strike while union officials discuss proposals put forward by the Scottish Government.

Fire minister Brandon Lewis said: "Now that the Fire Brigades Union is pressing ahead with this unnecessary and avoidable strike, maintaining public safety is our first priority.

"I can reassure the public that all fire and rescue authorities in England and Wales have robust contingency plans in place. Incidents and call-outs are at an historical low - but in the event of a fire the advice to people remains the same: get out, stay out and call 999 - you will get an emergency response.

"The Government has listened to union concerns - firefighters will still get one of the most generous pension schemes in the public sector.

"A firefighter who earns £29,000, and retires after a full career aged 60, will get a £19,000-a-year pension, rising to £26,000 with the state pension. An equivalent private sector pension pot would be worth over half a million pounds and require firefighters to contribute twice as much.

"The firefighter pension age of 60 was introduced in 2006 and is in line with the police and armed forces.

"We have been clear with the Fire Brigades Union our pension reforms are not introducing a national fitness standard. Firefighter fitness remains a local fire and rescue authority matter - Government is helping local employers and the union to work together on this issue."

The union countered that firefighters already pay some of the highest pension contributions in the UK public or private sector and have seen increases for two consecutive years.

"The majority of firefighters already pay almost 13% of their salary in contributions with further increases due next year. This will mean some firefighters now face an increase six years in a row," said Mr Wrack.

The Government said national contingency arrangements no longer rely on the Green Goddesses since these were sold or donated by the previous administration to countries including Zambia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bosnia, Peru, Bolivia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Argentina, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone.

A spokesman for the Communities and Local Government Department said: "All fire and rescue authorities now have a statutory duty to put continuity plans in place for emergencies, including strike action, under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

"Many are using experienced officers and retained or on-call firefighters who are not part of the FBU action.

"The Government will be closely monitoring the situation throughout and has a strategic back-up it can deploy if needed."