London firefighters set to walk out on strike

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The Independent Online

Thousands of London firefighters will take the "terrible step" of going on strike tomorrow after a row over new contracts remained deadlocked.

Members of the Fire Brigades Union will walk out for eight hours from 10am, with a further eight-hour stoppage planned for next month if the row is not resolved.

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

London Fire Brigade has pledged to respond to 999 calls throughout the strike, but officials admitted a fire engine may not be sent to less urgent and non life threatening incidents, including rubbish fires, fires on open ground, large animal rescues, flooding, people stuck in lifts and gas leaks.

The Brigade said its contingency arrangements allowed it to place up to 27 fire appliances at strategic locations across London and was a "significant improvement" on the military green goddesses used during the last strike.

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.

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said the strike was a "terrible step" to have to take, adding: "London's firefighters feel it is the only step they can now take.

"They are taking the action because, on August 11, the London Fire Brigade formally began the legal process of terminating the employment contracts of 5,600 London firefighters.

"If they had not started that process, we would not be going on strike. If the dismissals are lifted now, the strike will be called off straight away.

"Firefighters hate going on strike, but they hate being bullied even more. The London Fire Brigade is trying to bully them, and they won't have it. That's why there was a 79% majority in our ballot for a strike, on a 79% turnout - a huge mandate by any standards."

Mr Wrack will lead a walkout at Euston fire station before touring picket lines in the capital.

London firefighters have been taking industrial action short of a strike over the "mass sackings threat", including a ban on overtime, since September.

The brigade wants to reduce the current 15-hour night shift to 12 hours, and increase the current nine-hour day shift to 12 hours, therefore providing a longer day shift, saying that firefighters will continue to work two day shifts followed by two night shifts then have four days off.

A spokesman said: "The current start and finish times have been in place since 1979 and the work we do today has changed dramatically. We don't just respond to fires anymore. Firefighters train for and attend a much wider range of incidents such as flooding, collapsed buildings, chemical incidents etc, and work harder than ever before to prevent fires from happening in the first place.

"The current start and finish times also result in a change of shift during both the morning and evening rush hours when fire brigade incident demand is at its highest."

London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson, said: "We'll be responding to 999 calls and doing everything we can to protect the public during this unnecessary FBU strike using our contingency plans. The public can really help us by taking extra care and taking extra time today to think about fire safety."

Brian Coleman, chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said: "This action is based on suggested cuts. There are no cuts. This strike is pointless and unjustified and we must focus on talks to resolve the dispute."

London Fire Brigade said tonight it had tabled revised proposals aimed at averting further strikes, but the union described the move as a "gimmick" and confirmed that tomorrow's walkout would go ahead.

The brigade said it had offered a revised shift pattern of an 11-hour day shift and a 13-hour night shift, tied in with a number of new incentives and details of start and finish options.

"This is the third time that the brigade has offered to compromise on its original proposals of two 12-hour shifts and believes it is a positive step in resolving the dispute," said a statement.

The brigade said it was seeking the involvement of national negotiators and had proposed a meeting on November 5.

London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson said, "I remain fully committed to a negotiated agreement and to ending the dispute with the FBU as soon as possible. I am confident that constructive discussions can be held and a resolution found."

An FBU spokesman said: "The threat to sack all London firefighters has not been lifted. We have already put two compromise proposals forward, with no response from the brigade.

"They don't seem to want to compromise and this is just a gimmick."