South Yorkshire fire chief ‘breaths a sign of relief’ after strike action

Firefighters are set for more strike action. 'Picture: Tim Ansell
Firefighters are set for more strike action. 'Picture: Tim Ansell

South Yorkshire’s fire chief admits he ‘breathes a sigh of relief’ at the end of each strike – as hundreds of firefighters prepare to walk out again today.

Chief fire officer James Courtney said it was only ‘good fortune’ that previous strikes had not occurred at the same time as major incidents.

South Yorkshire's Chief Fire Officer James Courtney.

South Yorkshire's Chief Fire Officer James Courtney.

And he warned today’s 999 response service will be reduced again and that it would take longer to get to emergencies during the industrial action.

With about 700 firefighters due to go on strike again between 6am and 8am and between 5pm and 7pm today in an ongoing dispute with the Government over pensions and job security, Mr Courtney said contingency crews had ‘coped quite well so far’.

However, he said he fears daily strikes could take their toll.

From today, firefighters are planning to strike twice a day every day up to and including Saturday, once on Sunday and twice again next Monday.

Mr Courtney said: “I breathe a sigh of relief every time we get to the end of a period of industrial action.

“Over the last few months, we have had some high profile incidents – some very large fires – and we have had periods of industrial action.

“It is with a degree of good fortune these separate events have not happened simultaneously.”

Mr Courtney said although volunteer firefighters were honing their skills, he fears they will feel the effects of daily callouts.

He said: “The Fire Brigades Union now appears to be seeking to undermine the various contingency arrangements in place around the country.

“They are trying to stretch contingency arrangements without it costing membership through lost pay, so rather than an all-out strike they are having a couple of hours in the morning and evening.

“We have a relatively low number of contingency crews and to be up early and in bed late will be debilitating.

“Officers who have been relied upon to keep the contingency crews safe this week will have a very long week, but I am pleasantly surprised at what we have been able to do so far.”

Mr Courtney said: “We will endeavour to provide a service during periods of industrial action. However, it will not be the service we normally provide.

”The best way to stay safe is to be extra vigilant.”

Firefighters are angry about changes to their pensions and the lack of job opportunities for aging firefighters deemed unfit for the front line.

Firefighter Dennis Roebuck, from Darnall Road fire station, walked out on strike last Thursday.

He said: “The feeling is strong, because we just feel like we are getting nowhere – this has been going on too long.

“I don’t think this strike will make a difference but what do we do, roll over and let them take our pensions?

“We are made to feel we are letting the public down.”

Carl Pike, Unison union steward for fire service support staff, said: ‘I think people have just had enough.

“I don’t think this will be the last strike if the Government don’t allow us to get around the bargaining table. “I’d say the fact there is less fire cover would be in the forefront of all firefighters’ minds. Nobody wants to go on strike or lose a day’s pay – it is a last resort.”

The short two-hour walkouts for eight consecutive days is the most sustained period of industrial action since the dispute flared over a year ago.

The FBU has taken strike action on 15 separate occasions, including last week when more than a million public sector workers went on strike in protest at government policies.

The FBU is campaigning against controversial changes it believes will force firemen and women to work into their late 50s or into their 60s.

The Government maintains firefighters will still have a decent pension despite the changes.