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Fears are growing the Clare Fire and Rescue Service could be severely disrupted over the coming weeks unless serious efforts are made to address the “recruitment and retention crisis” affecting the local Retained Fire Service.

Red alert as Clare firefighters set for industrial action

SEVERE disruption to the Clare Fire and Rescue Service looks likely after a union served its intention to conduct a ballot for industrial action on behalf of local fire fighters on October 26.

This vital life-saving service may be curtailed unless Clare County Council can address the “recruitment and retention crisis” affecting the local Retained Fire Service.

The union has served the council a two-week written notice of its intention to ballot their members in the Retained Fire Service for industrial and strike action, which started on October 12.
It also confirmed the union remains available to “seek an agreed solution to this dispute”.

In a letter to Chief Executive, Pat Dowling dated October 12, SIPTU stated as a result of the failure “and/or refusal of management represented by the LGMA to honour its commitment to make proposals to address the long standing issues giving rise to the recruitment and retention crisis affecting the Retained Fire Service in the county “our members are in dispute with your organisation”.

“You will be aware, our members have sought to progress the ongoing recruitment and retention crisis in the retained service through the established Fire Services National Oversight and implementation Group (FSNOIG) Retained Division,” the letter outlined.

“You will recall that following a number of meetings of FSNOIG, the department invited rank and file firefighters to participate in a questionnaire completed by our retained firefighter members late last year.

“The Department has subsequently made a number of presentations to the FSNOIG, which has also identified fixed incomes and structured time off among the key issues our retained firefighter members require resolution to.

“We are now at a stage where despite having repeatedly sought to address this issue through the agreed channels, management has failed to table any meaningful proposals, despite making a commitment to do so, in order to address the recruitment and retention crisis affecting the Retained Fire Service.

“We are serving two weeks’ notice of our intention to ballot our members in the Retained Fire Service for industrial and strike action,” the letter concluded.

Councillor Liam Grant has consistently raised issues concerning the recruitment and retention of fire fighters in Clare, particularly in Shannon Fire Station, which has eight fire fighters but should have another seven to reach the staffing complement, which was increased from 12 to 15.

It has emerged that 14 fire fighters have left Shannon Fire Services since 2016 including five who left since September 2021 that were not of at retirement age.

Despite a number of recruitment drives in Shannon, Councillor Grant recalled the council hired one extra fire fighter and lost two members.

“Becoming a fire fighter is not attractive enough. People who are on call for a long period can’t go to see their children play in a football match.

“The pay is standardised but if the number of staff is increased, this will allow people to take more time off. The work life balance is the biggest issue why some people are leaving.

“Industrial action may be needed to force the government and the councils to make the necessary changes,” he said.

The Green Party Councillor left the Ennistymon Fire Station after spending more than a year last June as a retained fire fighter as he could no longer get the time he needed to carry out his duties as a councillor once Covid-19 restrictions ended.

At one stage, Ennistymon Fire Service required seven out of their nine personnel to be on call, which included any member who was away for a week’s training.

“There were times when for 15 or 16 days in a row I couldn’t leave a one a half mile radius of Ennistymon, which was stopping me doing my duties as a councillor. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to leave, but I had to go to do my job properly.

Councillor Johnny Flynn said the council’s Fire and Emergency Operations’ Plan sets out minimum staffing levels in fire stations, which are vital to maintain.

The former Limerick Fire Chief hopes the council will fully engage with the union through the industrial relations process to address the issues that are causing retention difficulties, as the Retained Fire Service provides a vital service.

“The potential impact of a strike would be very serious. The fire service is crucial to the council’s ability to respond to severe weather events such as flooding as well as fire.

“The Retained Fire Service requires a huge commitment for men and women in the service. It is crucial their work life balance is maintained to ensure people are getting adequate time off to be with their families, particularly when they are often dealing with very traumatic situations,” he said.

Stressing the importance of communication, Councillor Cillian Murphy said he couldn’t understand how this dispute has got to this point and is sorry to see that relations seems to have broken down.

While human relations issues are outside the remit of councillors, Councillor Murphy pointed out the consequences of a failure to address them is within their role.

“The retained fire personnel provide critical services to our communities, they are on call around the clock every day and have to deal with situations that are, quite frankly, beyond the capacity of most of us to cope with.

“They are almost always the very first on the scene of human tragedies, I know that in over 80% of instances in West Clare, members of our fire service are first on the scene for many medical emergencies, providing that early critical care intervention.

“There are many people in our community still alive today because members of our fire service were close by, first on scene, with the skills and confidence to take control of the situation.

“The thought that these men and women feel they are under valued, given the critical services they provide to our community, and their concerns around ongoing recruitment and retention issues are not being listened to, is unacceptable and I would ask that the situation be addressed as a matter of extreme urgency,” he said.

A council spokesman confirmed it has received correspondence from SIPTU, similar to all other local authorities that have a Retained Fire Service, advising that they (SIPTU) are serving two weeks’ notice of their intention to ballot their members in the Retained Fire Service for Industrial Action.

“The Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) is dealing with this issue centrally on behalf of the sector.”

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