Fresh talks aim at averting firefighters' strike

Fresh talks aimed at averting strikes by firefighters in London will be held today.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said it would meet this afternoon with the capital's brigade in a bid to avoid an eight-hour strike on Monday and a two-day strike from November 5 which will include Bonfire Night.

Thousands of union members went on strike last Saturday in protest against plans for a new shift system.

News of the latest talks came as the leader of firefighters involved in a dispute over new contracts complained of media intrusion into his private life and appealed for his family to be left alone.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said his former wife and student son had been "pestered" by reporters, with one "rooting about" in dustbins.

Mr Wrack earlier warned the relationship between firefighters and their managers has been damaged in the wake of the dispute and could take decades to put right.

The FBU said firefighters in London have been subjected to unfounded "smears".

Mr Wrack said stories claiming that contract staff covering for strikers last Saturday had been subjected to bullying and harassment were "totally untrue" and he flatly denied reports that the union had demanded pay rises of £10,000.

A spokesman for the London Fire Brigade said: "All the evidence that was collected during the dispute last Saturday of intimidation, violence or harassment of the emergency fire crews is currently being reviewed by the Met Police.

"Contingency plans will again be put in place on Monday, with private firm AssetCo using 27 fire appliances.

"It is important to report that while the contingency fire service has been put in place to provide a fire and rescue service in the capital, it is not intended to fully replicate normal business."

London's Fire Authority signed a £9 million five-year contract last year with 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.

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.

Mr Wrack said: "We do not want to take this action but we have no choice. The alternative is to allow London's firefighters to become doormats for their employers to walk on."

A brigade 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."

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."

Fire minister Bob Neill said the strike was "old fashioned militant muscle-flexing", adding: "I find the threat of industrial action over the Bonfire Night period disgraceful."

A number of Labour MPs have criticised the issuing of dismissal notices to firefighters and called on London Mayor Boris Johnson and the Government to intervene.

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