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Fair Pay or Fire Strike

Taj Ali

Firefighters in the FBU have voted overwhelmingly for strike action. In the face of a decade of falling pay and constant cuts, it's a desperate attempt to save their service.

Since 2010, one in five jobs have been cut, leading to slow response times and jeopardising firefighter and public safety. (Mike Harrington / Getty Images)

Ben Selby served as a firefighter in Lincolnshire for almost 20 years before being elected as the next Assistant General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. He joined the fire service shortly after the 2002 firefighter dispute, the first nationwide firefighters’ strike in the UK since 1977.

‘It’s a dispute where we won 16 percent over three years, but it also meant we had huge structural changes to the fire and rescue service under this guise of modernisation.’

Modernisation, in practice, meant cuts to services—a process that has continued apace in recent years. Central funding for local fire services has been reduced by 40 percent in real terms over the past decade. Since 2010, one in five jobs have been cut, leading to slow response times and jeopardising firefighter and public safety.

The Impact of Cuts

‘The early days of my fire service career were far different to the last few ones when I left the fire service,’ says Ben. When he joined, there were five or six firefighters on an appliance and two appliances at plenty of stations. ‘Fire Rescue Services were resilient enough to tackle most emergencies.’

Jamie Newell has been a firefighter in Luton for nearly sixteen years. When he first joined the service, like Ben, he often found himself fighting for space. Now, the fire service is lucky to have a crew of five on a pump. ‘Attendance times are at a record high, and brigades have sought to resolve this by moving the goal posts,’ he explains.

When Jamie joined the fire service, he says, there were twelve workers ensuring watches were running at an optimum level. Today, the same station often relies on a crew of four on each pump with firefighters expected to ride on both the fire engine and the aerial platform. ‘We’re now hearing in the last few years that some fire appliances are mobilising with twos or threes on them,’ explains Ben. ‘That is a colossal change.’

Clothed in the language of efficiency and modernisation, these cuts have made fire services less resilient. ‘Firefighters are multi-skilled professionals who have always been willing to adapt and change,’ he continues, ‘but the difficulty is the speed of the imposed, unfunded change.’

Safety Risks

The decline in the number of firefighters overall has been stark. Nationally, there are 11,500 fewer firefighters than in 2010. That kind of a reduction has real world consequences. ‘In the time I have been in the job,’ Jamie reports, ‘there’s been a greater number of firefighters dying at incidents than in the corresponding time previous.’

The reduction in safety measures is also a serious concern. ‘They are taking breathing apparatus off the backs of firefighters,’ Ben says. ‘These are people who enter high-rise buildings at great personal risk.’ While firefighters may still able to get to some incidents in a similar time, for major incidents, he explains, it may take hours to get a sufficient number of firefighters, especially in rural counties.

The closure of fire stations across the country has exacerbated these problems, in Ben’s view. ‘You don’t have to look far; the county just along from me in Nottinghamshire are making three million pounds’ worth of savings. They are looking to cut 45 firefighter jobs, do away with second appliances and close fire stations at night — I mean, who actually believes fires only occur during the day!’

Almost unbelievably, another sticking point in the fire dispute is the insistence of bosses that firefighters take on additional work. ‘It’s pure fantasy for any fire authority or fire chief to claim we have the capacity to take on additional work. The latest summer fires showed that,’ Jamie says.

Paltry Offer

Earlier this year, firefighters were offered a two percent pay ‘rise’—something which in reality amounts to a substantial real-terms pay cut. After twelve years of little to no pay award, this came as no surprise. Between 2009 and 2021, firefighters’ salaries were cut by over £4,000 in real terms.

That offer was subsequently increased to five percent, but it still falls far below the level of inflation. For Karl, a firefighter in Cleveland for the past fourteen years, firefighting is becoming a high-skilled and high-risk profession with low wages. ‘The last thing any firefighter wants to do is put the public at risk,’ he says, but strike action increasingly looks like the only way out.

Prior to the pandemic, firefighters had repeatedly expressed concerns around poor pay. These discussions were stalled because firefighters wanted to play a part in response to the national pandemic. Firefighters took on additional duties to assist with the national effort, such as helping the ambulance service and taking food and medication to the most vulnerable.

‘It also included, with great dignity, moving the bodies of our loved ones who had passed away,’ Ben remembers. Millions took to the doorsteps, including the Prime Minister at Downing Street, to clap for key workers. ‘We lost firefighters through Covid because of the work they were doing. We paused discussions on fair pay to assist with tackling the pandemic. And now, as we come out of it, we’re offered a paltry deal. Firefighters are furious with how they’ve been treated.’

Firefighter Anger

‘It’s difficult to remember a time, since I joined the fire service in the early 2000s, that firefighters and control staff have been made to feel less valued,’ says National Officer Riccardo La Torre. ‘We went from being patted on the back to being stabbed in the back by the government.’

Poor pay coupled with soaring inflation has meant firefighters have been at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis. Ben says there are endless stories of firefighters feeling the pinch of the spiralling crisis, with many having to make tough decisions over whether to heat their homes or put food on the table. ‘I’ve heard a story this week of a firefighter having to consider selling his home in order to make ends meet.’

Some fire services have capitalised on the desperation of firefighters struggling to pay their bills by opening up extra work but at a flat rate rather than the universally understood practice of overtime. ‘People who have already worked a 42-hour average week in all weathers, all hours, are being brought in to cover operational deficiencies at a flat rate,’ says Jamie. ‘It is one of the greatest shames within the Fire and Rescue Service that these chiefs say they want the best paid employees and then prey on their desperation and pay them on the cheap.’

‘I am fed up of counting the days till pay day every month,’ says Karl. ‘This cost-of-living crisis is making it virtually impossible to continue doing the job I love. Our employers and the press will play on our moral obligation and will attack us for taking the decision to fight back.’

Strike Vote

A serious discussion is overdue, says Riccardo La Torre, about funding the vital services people rely on. ‘The fire and rescue services and the men and women who provide them are beyond breaking point.’ The mood amongst firefighters is one of defiance. Karl agrees. ‘We will not stand by and let our profession be eroded to a non-functioning second-rate service. We do not want the world. We just want fair pay that allows us to prosper and provide for our families.’

In the absence of an acceptable offer, strike action is on the cards. The vote began on 4 December and will end on 30 January. The Fire Brigades Union has been around for 104 years and, if firefighters do embark on a strike, it will only be the fifth national strike in their history. ‘Firefighters have had enough. You can’t keep kicking somebody and expect them not to fight back,’ says Ben. ‘That’s why I think the Enough Is Enough campaign is fantastic. It’s taken the movement by the scruff of the neck and united workers to demand change.’