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Fanning the flames of industrial action

By Owen Ryan

INDUSTRIAL action by Clare’s firemen is likely if the adoption of a new protocol for the service in Clare isn’t reversed, SIPTU is warning.

It claims fighters’ lives will be put at risk by the adoption of Keeping Communities Safe, also claiming it jeopardises public safety.

Clare County Council adopted Keeping Communities Safe at a meeting on Monday of last week, a move SIPTU condemned. “This decision means that elected members have, without any
discussion of information, placed the lives of fire fighters at great risk and endangered the public. All Fire Stations in the county, along with families, are expressing extreme anger at how public
representatives could have taken such a vote and indeed why.”

The SIPTU statement outlined the fire fighters’ objections with what they say the plan will mean. “The extreme safety risk arises from the proposition to now send only four crews on a fire appliance where the national and international best practice is six. To expect four fire
fighters to try to deal with a fire effectively means that the crew would have to stand by while people were trapped in a building, while awaiting extra crew from another station elsewhere in the county. The time delay here would undoubtedly lead to tragedy.

“In the aftermath of the inquest and ongoing investigation into the tragedy in Bray, Co Wicklow, the issue of crew levels going to fires is now of critical importance. For public representatives not to consult with those who risk their lives every time they respond to an emergency call is a total insult to Clare fire fighters.”

However, chief fire officer,  Adrian Kelly, rejected several of the claims made by SIPTU and claimed they are based on a poor understanding of what is actually proposed. “They should read the plan and examine it in more detail, they appear to be basing their comments on scaremongering by others.”

He claimed that fire fighters were given ample invited to assist with the creation of the plan, but decided not to engage.

“We went through a process for 12 months with Clare County Council. The fire fighters were
invited to sit on a sub committee with councillors and management and their union instructed them not to attend,” Mr Kelly added.

He claimed the number of staff at Shannon would increase from 12 to 15, that potential closure Kilkee and Killaloe stations would be avoided and there would be no changes at Kilrush, Scariff and Ennistymon.

David Woods is SIPTU shop steward for Clare fire fighters.  Speaking to The Clare Champion  he claimed Clare County Council is going to move away from a long-standing agreement.

“They’re breaching the 1999 agreement that six fire fighters are in the first fire engine; that’s
always been the way it’s gone, the first one to leave any fire station in Ireland, six people are in it. They’re dropping that to five for the first fire engine. The second one always had six in two pump stations but that’s going to four. We think that’s an absolute disgrace, it doesn’t make sense, and in the quieter stations they’ll only have two in the second appliance so this is the dangerous part of it.”

He said that the union’s members will also lose out financially. “The Haddington Road agreement states that there’s to be no loss of earnings to any firemen, but if you’re only going to page five firemen and there used to be a minimum of nine, four will be sitting at home. We’ll straight away be looking at a loss of earnings.”

Mr Woods acknowledged that SIPTU hadn’t been represented at talks in Clare, but he said the reason was that it was to be discussed at a national level, rather than local.

He said that firefighters had been working on preparing a submission for councillors to read in advance of the local authority’s May meeting.

However, he claimed the decision on Keeping Communities Safe was moved to the April meeting, wrongfooting the union. “I’ve talked to a lot of councillors and they said they weren’t sure what they were voting on because they didn’t have the document.”

Mr Woods warned that a rethink is needed from the councillors.  “We probably will have industrial action down the road if it isn’t reversed by the county councillors.  It’s only the councillors who can reverse this decision.”

Their response document has now been concluded and will be sent to all members of the county council. A copy was seen by the Champion on Wednesday and at its outset it says the proposals of Keeping Communities Safe “are unsafe, unworkable and expose firefighters and the communities they serve to unacceptable risks and we cannot agree with their implementation.”

It claims that no health and safety risk assessment was carried out and that the experience in Britain is not encouraging. “The inescapable fact is that there has been a direct and linear increase in firefighter deaths in the United Kingdom since reduced crewing, identical to that
proposed under KCS”.

The document rejects some of the assumptions underpinning KCS. “It appears that KCS has used existing call out statistics to develop the risk categories proposed. Activity levels plus possible risk equates with a certain risk category and a suggested response. However, we believe there is a fundamental flaw in this methodology. The activity level is based on historical activity; ie simply how busy a station has been in the past or how many of a certain category of calls has that
station responded to. For example, a station may have attended 100 calls, 20 of them being domestic fires, 10 road traffic accidents etc. However no account is taken of the incidents where a local decision has been made that the particular category of call is not attended by the fire service.”
The document includes a claim that,  “KCS is following a policy of an attendance standard based on what resources it decides it has available, not the actual risk to the community.”

The public will pay the price if KCS is persisted with, it warns.  “The thrust of the KCS proposals are backed up by no empirical evidence, studies or factual evidence that they will do anything to increase or improve safety in the community. In fact the opposite is most likely.

“Reducing the levels and category of response, together with reductions in manpower will ultimately place the elderly and vulnerable, those living in rural areas, businesses and the rate payers who fund the service at greater risk as a result of a slower less adequate response
more akin to that of the 1950s than that of a modern fit- for- purpose fire service that the community expects and deserves.”

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