CLARE County Council has been urged to redouble its efforts to retain experienced firefighters to tackle a “serious staffing crisis” in the fire and rescue service.
Siptu has urged the council to ensure that all fire stations in the county are brought up to adequate manning levels in 2018.
The union has also warned that a group of firefighters could face “serious health and safety” issues if they are continually called on to deal with incidents because of inadequate staffing levels in a station.
While Clare Fire Chief Adrian Kelly acknowledges staff retention in the service is presenting challenges for the local authority, he insists the council is addressing the issue and that a recruitment drive has resulted in five new retained firefighters being hired in recent times.
From September 2014 to August 2017, 22 personnel left the fire service – 10 people retired on either medical or age grounds, one did not successfully complete probation and, unfortunately, two others passed away while employed.
At this point, there are 71 retained personnel employed, providing a 94.6% employment rate, with four vacancies to be filled at retained level.
According to Mr Kelly, positions have been advertised across the county to recruit personnel to fill the current and planned future vacancies. He pointed out fire service personnel have not raised any “serious health and safety” issues with the service and where such issues are raised through the normal rank structures, they are dealt with he said.
Assistant industrial Siptu organiser Michael Kiely claimed the council is not making enough efforts to retain experienced staff by not applying enough flexibility when another full or part-time local authority job becomes available. He said the union is disappointed with the numbers of experienced firefighters who have been allowed to leave the service over the past 12 months.
“Very little has been done to keep experienced firemen in the service. It takes four years to achieve the necessary qualifications. We have had people who got full-time jobs with the council, who could have been left inside the 1.5 mile radius but were taken out of it.
“These people have been issued an ultimatum, you either stay with the fire service or take a full-time job. A lot more could have been done to keep people within the 1.5 mile radius,” Michael Kiely claimed.
“The question has to be asked, is Clare County Council really interested in keeping experienced firemen?”
He claimed the current “staffing crisis” has got worse since the issue was raised at the October council meeting.
“The same urgency for recruiting indoor and outdoor staff to council doesn’t seem to be there when it comes to recruiting firefighters.
“We have firemen with more than 25 years experience who have been allowed to leave the fire service. You can’t buy that type of experience,” he maintained.
He expressed concern that in addition to having less time off over Christmas, the lack of proper manning levels present a health and safety issue.
Ennis Fire Station has been particularly badly hit by departures, which means some firefighters will have about 50% less time off over the Christmas period. This includes the loss of the Ennis station, sub-station and acting sub-station officer.
“If the same group of firemen continually get called out to attend incidents, this poses a health risk. If a fireman is called out constantly because of the lack of personnel, that has to affect their level of performance. All our members are very professional people but they have limits.
“From Killaloe to Kilkee, our members are extremely annoyed with what they feel is the attempt to ‘run down the fire service’.”
When Siptu try to address the staffing and recruitment issues, Mr Kiely claimed they are told by the council that there will be a training course in Sligo in six months’ time.
He said new entrants shouldn’t have to wait six months for a course that should be provided in Clare or Limerick.
Fire chief Adrian Kelly has pointed out the current trend is not particular to County Clare, as many other counties are experiencing a similar high turnover of retained fire service personnel.
He outlined it is also a reality that, as the economy improves, more job opportunities become available to people.
A number of fire authorities, including Clare County Council, run initial recruit firefighter courses as required. The council works with other fire authorities to ensure that places are made available as soon as possible on such courses, to continue to fill vacancies are required throughout the service.
The council noted it successfully completed a three-week initial recruit firefighter course on December 15, providing five new retained firefighters. The intent of this course was to fill all vacancies.
However, for a variety of reasons, Mr Kelly outlined a number of additional persons failed to get through the recruitment process.
By Dan Danaher