Firefighters set to spread action over cash cuts

Strike warning: London brigade moving towards Merseyside-style confrontation over plan to shed 645 jobs
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The Independent Online
Signs emerged yesterday that the four-month campaign of industrial action by firefighters on Merseyside in protest at spending cuts is poised to spread to the south-east of England.

The Fire Brigades Union in Essex has voted to ban all but emergency call- outs on 15 and 16 December, and the union's regional council for London yesterday recommended strike action over proposals to slim down the service in the capital.

Merseyside firefighters are to press their union's executive next Thursday to call an emergency national conference to discuss the situation in the Liverpool area and to urge the national leadership to back national action.

The Local Government Management Board, which negotiates nationally with the FBU, was yesterday still assessing the full implications of renewed pressure on council finances, but it was clear that fire brigades throughout the country would be faced with cutbacks.

Tomorrow, the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority will be discussing a recommendation that the service should lose 645 posts over the next 25 months - nearly a tenth of the workforce. The four fire stations under threat of closure are Shooters Hill and Downham in south-east London and Manchester Square and Barbican in the centre of the capital.

The plan was drawn up by Brian Robinson, chief officer of the London brigade, who believes the cutbacks can be achieved over the next two years through "natural wastage" and a freeze on recruitment.

Jimmy Fitzpatrick, FBU executive member for London, said the regional committee would attempt to fight the proposals by lobbying politicians and enlisting the aid of community organisations, but ultimately believed the future of the brigade could depend on members' willingness to take industrial action.

"Emergency service workers do not take strike action lightly. It is very much the last resort." He said, however, that the cuts envisaged by Mr Robinson were "drastic". He believed the response times of fire engines would inevitably deteriorate because of the closure of stations. "In the fire service seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Management is taking a gamble."

Mr Fitzpatrick said that if London took action it would be co-ordinated with Merseyside which has already staged a total of nine 9-hour-strikes and twelve 24-hour stoppages. Mike Lawson, Merseyside representative on the FBU executive, believes there is considerable support around the country for national action in protest at cutbacks.

The union has already threatened to take national industrial action if there are any compulsory redundancies, but many FBU branches are concerned abut the erosion of the service through natural wastage.

Ken Cameron, general secretary of the union, said that last year almost 200 posts disappeared in England and Wales and at least the same number of jobs would be lost in the coming year. "We fear that the fire service will only be able to meet its statutory obligations by lowering standards of fire cover which inevitably puts the public at risk. Every appliance taken off the run makes the country a more dangerous place," he said.

Some seasoned observers believe, however, that the prophecies of swingeing jobs cuts are routine at this time of the year when the union is attempting to maximise the amount of money devoted to the service.