Fire crews strike over shift patterns

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of firefighters remained on strike today in a protest over plans to change shift patterns.

Firefighters in South Yorkshire staged a mass walkout yesterday at 6pm as part of a dispute that erupted following proposals to implement a 12-hour shift pattern, instead of the current pattern of nine-hour days and 15-hour nights.

Last week the fire authority offered to negotiate but the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said it would not call off the action unless a threat to sack 744 firefighters as a means of imposing new contracts was withdrawn.

The planned 24-hour industrial action left South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (SYFRS) with just 15 frontline fire engines, as opposed to the usual 33, and 11 "category two" lightweight vehicles.

A spokesman at SYFRS said last night was "fairly quiet" with one call-out for a frontline engine to a car fire in Sheffield, and three call-outs to grass and bin fires for some of the smaller engines during the course of the night.

Ian Murray, regional secretary for the FBU said firefighters were "extremely disappointed" that no satisfactory offer had been made by the fire authority, which could have made the strike avoidable.

He said: "It's the last thing any firefighter wants to do, to walk out.

"To see grown men walking through those doors with tears in their eyes... but we've been forced into this."

Firefighters have argued that new shift patterns would present families with various problems, including childcare arrangements.

Mr Murray said the union now wants senior officials in the fire service to come back to the negotiating table and consider an alternative shift pattern of 10-hour days and 14-hour nights, as suggested by firefighters.

Mark Smitherman, chief fire officer of SYFRS, said a letter had yesterday been sent to the FBU in the 11th hour, but to no avail.

He said there had never been any been any threat of dismissal.

"Let me be very clear," he said. "What the FBU are referring to as 'sacking' is the 'dismissal and re-engagement' procedure that we, like any other organisation, would have to follow in the event of no agreement being reached and new shift systems imposed.

"This is a backstop and a total last resort, it is not something we want to happen."

He added that the commencement of the strike was both "depressing" and "frustrating" after 18 months of talks, especially as no firefighter wants to walk away from his post.

When asked if another 24-hour strike planned for October 23 could be avoided, Mr Smitherman said: "I think the ball is very much in the court of the FBU. We've suggested to the union to come back to the negotiating table and to start talking as opposed to striking."