London firefighters vote for strike

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The Independent Online

Firefighters in London have voted by more than 3-1 to go on strike in a row over new contracts, it was announced today.

Members of the Fire Brigades Union backed a campaign of walkouts by 3,482 votes to 943, a 79% majority, with a turnout of 79%.

The union gave London Fire Brigade until tomorrow to withdraw letters it said effectively sacked firefighters, to be re-employed on worse terms, or strike dates will be announced.

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: "This vote is a huge vote for strike action. Firefighters hate going on strike, but they hate being bullied even more.

"This vote demonstrates that London firefighters will fight these mass sackings every step of the way. The London Fire Brigade now needs to lift the sacking notices and start negotiating properly.

"I hope that, even at this late stage, London Fire Brigade Commissioner Ron Dobson will do the sensible thing, so that we can get round a table with him and sort out our differences over shift patterns without a gun being held to our heads.

"We are holding off announcing strike dates for 24 hours in order to give the London Fire Brigade a last chance to do the sensible thing and withdraw the letters of dismissal so we can return to negotiating on the question of shift patterns."

Brian Coleman, chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said: "It's disappointing and saddening that the only losers in all of this will be firefighters. A strike by the FBU will be unnecessary, unjustified and viewed unsympathetically by Londoners. This dispute centres on proposed changes to make people safer."

London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson said: "Our contingency plans will of course now move forward to ensure the capital is protected during any period of strike action by the FBU."

The FBU said that if there was no response from the London Fire Brigade, the union's regional committee would meet Mr Wrack tomorrow to discuss setting dates for strikes.

London firefighters have been taking action short of a strike, including an overtime ban, since last month.

The fire brigade is proposing to change the start and finish times of duty for its frontline firefighters by reducing the current 15-hour night shift to 12 hours, and increasing the current nine-hour day shift to 12 hours, providing a longer day shift.

The brigade insists that firefighters will continue to work two day shifts followed by two night shifts and 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 any more. 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.

"The changes would significantly increase the productive time available during the day shift for essential training and community fire safety work to be arranged. For instance, firefighters now prevent fires by visiting Londoners in their homes, fitting free smoke alarms and offering advice on preventing fires.

"The new start and finish times would also mean less disruption to services during a crucially busy period of the day. The current shift change takes place during morning and evening rush-hour."

The brigade has drawn up contingency plans for dealing with a strike, adding that it can no longer rely on support from the military with their green goddesses as happened in previous disputes.

The authority entered into a five-year, £9 million contract in June 2009 with AssetCo to provide London with a contingency level of fire and rescue services during any industrial action, natural disaster, severe pandemic illness or catastrophic incident.

The arrangement in place involved the deployment of up to 27 fire appliances.

"We believe that the service will provide, so far as is reasonably practicable, an acceptable level of contingency cover," said the brigade.