Fire Brigades Union Challenges Proposed Changes

Proposals for changes in the way that East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (ESFRS) will cover risks of fire, flood and other emergencies over the next five years are to be published “for public and wider stakeholder consultation”. That was the decision of the governing East Sussex Fire Authority at a meeting on 23rd April, despite the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which represents the majority of the Service’s workforce and opposes many of the proposals, lobbying to halt the process. 

The ESFRS’ s draft strategy document, which it calls its Integrated Risk Management Plan (IRMP) for 2020-2025, sets out changes that will, according to a press release issued by the FBU, “decimate the Service”. They include a radical overhaul of staff shift patterns and training schedules, and a re-allocation of resources between fire stations across the county – for instance, cutting full-time firefighting staff and fire appliances at Battle and Bexhill, and downgrading the response capability of the station on the Ridge in Hastings, whilst bolstering that of Bohemia Road. They also propose reduction of cover for peripheral rescue operations such as lift releases and trapped birds (see side column). 

The county’s Chief Fire Officer Dawn Whittaker, author of the IRMP, concludes that its programme “will allow us to improve community safety, improve our resources and free up capacity for staff to do more prevention and business safety work… These changes are needed to ensure that we are able to deliver the most effective service, based on risk, and within our available resources.” 

The Union, on the other hand, has been arguing for several months against many of the changes. It sees them as effecting not only reductions in fire-fighting and other emergency cover over the county, but also disrupting shift patterns and team organisation that its members have based their lives around for many years. FBU official Eliot Parry is particularly concerned at proposals to train individuals via online learning or at hubs with other firefighters that they don’t actually work with.

 “Working as a team is of the utmost importance,” he says. “Firefighters perform at their best with colleagues with whom they train regularly, work, eat and live with.” The changes would bring “complete loss of team approach at operational incidents, due to crew not working together regularly or training together.” 

FBU Chairman, Simon Herbert stated before the meeting last month: “These are very dangerous proposals that will heavily impact this critical public service that my members and I provide to the residents of East Sussex.  The Fire Service is still struggling to manage, following the cuts that were introduced in 2016… When Fire Authority members are asked to vote on these dangerous plans to [alter] our local fire service I hope they have the morality and strength of character to put safety first and reject [them].”

More specifically, the Union argued that no consultation should be proceeded with in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr Herbert and Mr Parry wrote jointly to members of the Fire Authority, declaring: “Now is not the time to be changing the Service. Post -pandemic, the Fire Service nationally may change, we are already seeing firefighters take on additional roles including driving ambulances, transporting deceased, testing of sick, and the distribution of PPE.

“The FBU are of the opinion that the IRMP must be delayed and reviewed post-Covid pandemic. Should the Fire Authority go ahead with public consultation there may well be legal challenges to the legitimacy of the consultation under the IRMP framework document. Plans will also most likely have to be reviewed and changed, due to changes in the roles of firefighters in society.”

Labour party councillors on the Fire Authority responded to these arguments by tabling an amendment at the meeting, supported by Greens and an Independent, to postpone consultation. But postponement was rejected by the Conservative and Lib Dem majority. 

A public survey is now being conducted online by the independent Opinion Research Service on behalf of the ESFRS, running until 19th June. A petition headed “Support Your Firefighters – Reject The Proposals – Save Lives” has also been launched online with change.org. At the time of writing, over 7,500 signatures have been logged.

For fuller details of the proposals and participation in the survey, see  www.esfrs.org/safer-future
For details of the petition see
www.change.org/p/east-sussex-fire-authority-support-your-firefighters


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