Firefighters prepared to strike again over job cuts

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Firefighters warned of a wave of local strikes yesterday after John Prescott indicated that up to one in 10 jobs could be cut.

Launching a White Paper on the modernisation of the fire service, the Deputy Prime Minister indicated that many of the 4,000 to 6,000 employees who would retire over the next six years would not be replaced. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) fears that thousands of other firefighters may also be made redundant as part of what will be the biggest shake-up in the fire service for decades.

Andy Gilchrist, FBU general secretary, warned Mr Prescott to "listen carefully" to fire service employees before making changes. "Those who want to see genuine change in modernisation know that it cannot be based on the jaundiced mythology which grew during the pay dispute," he said.

In the past the FBU has been adept at resisting at a local level policies with which it disagreed.

Mr Prescott said that warnings by the union that the new strategy could mean 10,000 redundancies amounted to "a scare story. All the talk about closing fire stations and thousands of firefighters being made redundant is totally untrue," he said.

He said that between 4,000 and 6,000 employees would be leaving the service over the next three years and that would be taken into account when new systems were introduced.

The White Paper falls substantially short of the radical changes suggested by Sir George Bain in his review of the fire service last year, which was published at the height of the nine-month dispute over pay that ended last month.

The plans will enable fire chiefs to change the number of firefighters on duty at different times of the day so that, for instance, financial districts in city centres will have less cover than the suburbs where there would be more people.

The Deputy Prime Minister told the Commons: "The risk-based approach means that more emergency cover will be available at times of highest risk. At present, cover is based on the number and type of buildings in an area, rather than the risks faced by the people in them."

In recognition of this wider role, the Government is to rename the Fire Service the Fire and Rescue Service.

Mr Prescott said that the current arrangements for managing the service were "confused and inefficient". There were too many small fire authorities, which could not generate economies of scale and did not have sufficient resources to tackle threats such as terrorism.

Where there were directly elected regional assemblies, Mr Prescott envisaged regional fire and rescue authorities, "democratically accountable to those assemblies".

Three new smaller bodies would be set up to negotiate pay and conditions for chief fire officers, middle managers and firefighters instead of the current single organisation. And new systems would be introduced so that the "best performers" could progress quickly and that the ethnic mix of employees would reflect the communities they served.