Firefighters strike again in row over contracts

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The Independent Online

London's firefighters went on strike again today in a row over new contracts.

The eight-hour stoppage follows the collapse of 11th-hour talks between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the capital's brigade.

The two sides met yesterday for more than four hours at the Local Government Association headquarters in Westminster, but the talks ended without any agreement.

Members of the FBU stopped work from 10am, forcing the capital's fire brigade to hire contract staff to provide cover.

A similar strike was held on October 23 and the union is still planning a two-day strike from the morning of November 5, which will include Bonfire Night and November 6 when scores of firework and bonfire displays will be held across the capital.

London's Fire Authority signed a £9 million five-year contract last year with private firm AssetCo to provide a contingency level of fire and rescue services if firefighters were not available because of severe pandemic illness, industrial action, natural disaster or catastrophic incident.

During the strike, firefighters will attend incidents including serious fires, explosions, blazes involving gas cylinders or hazardous substances and road collisions but not incidents such as grass fires, flooding and people stuck in lifts, according to the brigade.

Although AssetCo fire engines are not trained to work as specialist CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) units, a London Fire Brigade (LFB) spokesman said a terrorist attack would receive a fire service response because specialist equipment and crews were a "national resource".

It was also hoped firefighters could be recalled in the event of a major emergency during the strike, he added.

The spokesman said: "The London Fire Brigade's contingency plans have, for the second day of FBU strike action, been rolled out on schedule.

"All 162 contract staff providing the fire and rescue service in the capital today are either now available or waiting to be deployed from the brigade's training centre in Southwark.

"During the day 27 fully crewed appliances will operate, responding to 999 calls received."

A spokeswoman for the FBU said senior officers had walked out alongside rank-and-file staff.

One senior officer and union member - area manager Chris Crooks - said: "The values of the fire service are of respect and trust between management and firefighters, and the management in London don't seem to want to work that way any more."

The brigade wants to change the current 15-hour night shift and nine-hour day shift to provide a longer day shift, saying that firefighters will continue to work two day shifts followed by two night shifts then have four days off.

The union has accused the capital's fire brigade of threatening thousands of firefighters with the sack if they do not agree to new shift patterns.

Following the collapse of yesterday's talks, FBU regional official Paul Embery said: "We are clearly extremely disappointed that the London Fire Brigade representatives brought absolutely nothing new to the meeting and all they did was reiterate their position held for several weeks."

Mr Embery said the FBU had called a further meeting for tomorrow, but the LFB were yet to commit to it.

Meanwhile LFB assistant commissioner David Brown said: "We think it's reckless and completely irresponsible. There is no need to strike, we've been talking all day about a variety of options. We invited the FBU for independent arbitration on two separate dates and they refused."

He said the LFB was "available for talks any time" in a bid to prevent the weekend strike.

Fire Minister Bob Neill said: "I urge the FBU to return to the negotiating table. I am sure that this dispute can be resolved through reasoned and peaceful talks."

A spokesman for the Mayor of London said: "We are bitterly disappointed that a profession which prides itself on protecting and reassuring the public seem determined to torment Londoners over minor and extremely reasonable adjustments to their very flexible working arrangements.

"Thorough and responsible contingency planning should ensure that Guy Fawkes week remains safe and enjoyable in this city but that does not detract from the FBU's cynical and miserable refusal to subject their case to independent arbitration and call off this unnecessary strike."