Modernisation is like motherhood and apple pie. Everybody agrees with it, but the devil is in the detail.
The Prime Minister yesterday spelt out what he meant by modernisation when applied to the fire service, describing five areas in which the Fire Brigades Union must make concessions if its pay demands are to be addressed.
1. CO-OPERATIVE WORKING
The first bone of contention, according to Tony Blair, was management's insistence that the union should be sufficiently flexible to allow full-time and part-time firefighters to work together.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) claims that, while part-timers are often employed in rural areas and their full-time colleagues in towns and cities, there are occasions when they work together at the moment.
Mike Fordham, the union's assistant general secretary, said yesterday that there was already considerable flexibility on this issue and that it had not been mentioned once in negotiations.
2. SHIFT PATTERNS
The Prime Minister said the FBU should agree to new shift systems. Currently firefighters work two day shifts and two night shifts – part of which they are allowed to sleep – and then take four days off.
During talks management has not attempted to impose a new shift system, but has floated the idea that some fire stations should have fewer staff at night. Ministers point out that the City of London, for instance, has a huge population during the day and therefore requires full fire cover. Management argues that fewer firefighters are required during the night because workers have disappeared to the suburbs.
The principle involved – and it is one with which the FBU agrees – is that while fire cover at the moment is dictated by the number of buildings in a particular area, it should be based on the number of people in an area.
The corollary is that there should be fewer firefighters on duty in the City during the night. The FBU fears that this could mean job losses and points out that many fires start during the night. The union accepts, however, that this issue should be the subject of negotiation.
The Prime Minister suggested that the FBU should abandon its 25-year-old ban on non-emergency overtime. This would give fire brigades far more flexibility in the way staff were used, but the union believes that such overtime would militate against management attempts to attract more women and make the service more "family-friendly".
4. PARAMEDIC TRAINING
The union fears that Mr Blair's suggestions that firefighters should be trained as paramedics would mean that fire brigades could be used instead of ambulance services. The FBU believes it could be a "backdoor" means of making cuts. Many local authority fire engines carry defribrillators, which are used on heart-attack victims. The FBU does not object to firefighters being trained to use them, but it is concerned they might be forced to take on a role that they argue should be undertaken by ambulance workers.
5. 'ONE-STOP' 999 SERVICE
The FBU believes that the Prime Minister's suggestion that police, fire and ambulance emergency control centres should be merged will reduce the expertise of specialist staff. Firefighters argue that their control room personnel have to be able to assess the importance of calls and to evaluate the appropriate reaction.