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Firefighters prepare for national strike

PUBLISHED: 20:00 03 September 2002 | UPDATED: 12:34 03 March 2010

SUFFOLK firefighters could be on the brink of industrial action today after talks aimed at averting a national strike by firefighters ended without agreement.

SUFFOLK firefighters could be on the brink of industrial action today after talks aimed at averting a national strike by firefighters ended without agreement.

Thousands of firefighters from across the UK lobbied talks in London yesterday between the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) and employers' leaders, aimed at heading off industrial action.

Fire chiefs claim that the wages of firefighters need to be brought into line with those of other skilled workers and are seeking a 39 per cent pay rise.

Paul Woolstenholmes, Suffolk county secretary of the FBU said: "I believe there will now be a massive yes vote to going on strike and there could be a national strike towards the end of this month."

But Peter Monk of Suffolk County Council said today that a 39 per cent pay increase would mean an increase of £80 on the annual council tax bill of Suffolk residents.

Yesterday the fire service was already undertaking unofficial industrial action by answering emergency calls only and as the talks in London reached a stalemate, Suffolk Fire service were dealing with a major fire on Rushmere Heath.

Thick smoke billowed across Heath Road in the town as yet another fire took hold of gorse bushes and crews from both Princes Street and Colchester Road headquarters had to attend the fire.

The grass blaze is exactly the kind of incident which would fall under the responsibility of soldiers and volunteers if there is a firefighters strike.

This was the grim prospect faced in Britain 25 years ago when the nation was also hit by a strike over pay conditions.

WHAT THE FIREFIGHTERS WANT?

Fire Brigades Union (FBU) officials are seeking a rise of almost 40 per cent for all professional qualified firefighters, who currently command a salary of £21,500 a year.

The FBU is calling for £30,000 a year for professional firefighters and emergency fire control staff, with parity for professional retained and volunteer firefighters. It is also calling for a new pay formula to ensure that links are maintained in the future between firefighters' pay and that of similar groups.

Thousands of firefighters took to the streets of London yesterday to lobby talks over pay as officials from the FBU held talks with employers' leaders in a last-ditch attempt to head off the threat of a national strike.

WHAT THEY ARE BEING OFFERED

A four per cent pay rise has been officially tabled, linked to average settlements across the economy.

Paul Woolstenholmes, county secretary of the FBU said the amount was simply not enough as firefighters are lagging severely behind in the pay stakes.

"We need to catch up with other workers as we earn £100 per week below the national average. We are on £21,500 and want £30,000, but as yet there is no firm offer on the table. Striking remains an absolute last resort."

Employers' chairman Ted George said employers simply could not afford the union's demands. He said: "We told the union that we agree there should be a new pay system for firefighters. We suggest it is based on the rise in average settlement in the rest of the economy. But we cannot meet a wage rise of anything like the union's demand."

WHO WOULD PAY FOR IT?

Peter Monk, a member of Suffolk County Council's executive committee and the Local Government Association's fire forum, said the 39 per cent pay rise would mean an increase in council tax bills.

"In order to meet the 39 per cent pay rise, it would mean an increase of £80 on the annual council tax bill" he said.

IS THE CURRENT SALARY A FAIR WAGE?

The FBU says the current pay formula, which was worked out after the last national strike in 1977, is outdated and has left firefighters' pay lagging behind other workers.

Paul Woolstenholmes said: "We're not asking for a massive pay rise, simply to fall in line with other workers. We believe that the job we do deserves equal pay and we need to catch up on fifteen years of underpayment and the figure we need is 39 per cent.

"We're not putting lives on the line by striking, we are simply asking to be fairly paid for a job we do. There are firefighters in Suffolk who struggle to support a family and I know of people who cannot get a mortgage and have to live at the fire station to save money."

Firefighters risk their lives for on average £21,000 and if evidence of the diversity of Suffolk firefighters is needed, one need only look at the Norsea ferry fire yesterday morning in which our county's firefighters were involved.

Firefighter Chris Willis, 25, who is based at Colchester Road, said: "All we want is a wage which reflects the job we do. For example, in the last month I've administered first aid at a road traffic accident where the patient is HIV positive and have attended a fire with hypodermic needles on the floor."

WHAT HAPPENED IN 1977?

Volunteers and part time firemen manning Army Green Goddesses dealt with fires during the last strike, which lasted through the winter of 1977/1978.

Picket lines were established in November 1977 across the country with soldiers provided emergency cover until January 1978 when the strike ended.

The pay strike 25 years ago was undertaken to boost the pay of firefighters to the level of other skilled workers.

Despite great support from the public through the winter, the combination of untrained volunteers outdated equipment led to a struggle to cope with the demand.

In one incident in Wherstead in November 1977, striking fireman refused to help at a double fatal road accident because it happened one mile outside their area.

Some firefighters grew beards during the winter strike which were against country regulations due to problems when wearing breathing apparatus.

WHAT WOULD THE EFFECTS OF A STRIKE BE IN 2002?

Lives and property will be put at risk if firefighters go ahead with their

threat of a national strike over pay, according to Charles Nolda, executive director of the employer's organisation.

He said 900 Army Green Goddess fire engines would be mobilised across the UK if members of the Fire Brigades Union go on strike. But he conceded that the cover would not be as efficient as that provided by fire authorities, which use 3,000 fire engines.

"If there is a strike we expect Green Goddesses to be used and we expect the armed forces to be crewing them" he said.

Members of the armed forces are believed to be undertaking training in preparation for a strike.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

The Fire Brigades Union's National Executive Council yesterday agreed to recall the Union's Annual Conference September 12 and will recommend a ballot for national strike action in the UK Fire Service for the first time in 25 years.

WEBLINK

www.fbu.org.uk - Fire Brigades Union

n Firefighters spent at least an hour and a half making sure the smoldering bushes could not reignite.

Huge flames took hold of the gorse bushes on the edge of the golf course at around 3pm yesterday.

Crowds of onlookers gathered to watch the fire crews using beaters and water jets to quell the flames before they spread in the wind.

Although the cause of the fire was not known, Sub Officer Wayne Crabb put out a warning to the public to be careful of discarding rubbish and cigarettes or anything that could cause a fire in bushes or grass.

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