Fire stations across Hertfordshire overwhelmingly rejected Hertfordshire County Council’s (HCC) plan to cut crew numbers at a meeting between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the council.
The well-attended meeting is to engage in negotiations with HCC to address the “huge shortages” in staffing and to stop slashing crew numbers from five to four.
Hertfordshire FBU chairman Derek MacLeod, who is also a serving firefighter in Welwyn Garden City, told MyLocalNews the department is “playing catch up” following years without recruitment.
He said: “We’ve passed resolutions adopted by the negation team to enter with the chief to address the huge staff shortages we have and are over reliant on overtime to try keep fire engines operational, where routinely many are unavailable.
“We need a safe level of five firefighter in one truck to do what we can, and we really need to convey that in the clearest way possible. If we can’t find a resolution or compromise to our safety concerns is to enter a trade dispute and take strike action but that is the last resort.”
Over the last nine years Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service has seen pay cuts which has put strain on keeping its some 40 vehicles operational. In one weekend Derek said 17 appliances were unavailable including vehicles that carry specialist equipment. Some staff members are even volunteering to do overtime in excess of 120 hours a week – more than double the average week – to meet demand.
He commented: “Firefighters have been volunteering overtime and some are doing double the average week. It’s unprecedented levels by the existing staff and lately we’ve seen it come to a head.
“There have been a few large incidents and the Warner Bros fire in Leavesden put a lot of strain on us and highlighted the hours some crews are having to work.
“We’d normally rotate people and call in fresh crews but in that incident, we had to use the same people because other crews weren’t available. Instead commanders are asking firefighters if they can go in one, two or three more times – that’s when accidents happen. It’s not acceptable and puts firefighters at risk. It’s one of the reasons lot of angry firefighters turned up.”
The county council is currently recruiting around 70 firefighters, but Derek said there needs to be another recruitment drive within the next 12 months to get the attainment to a “safe” level.
Darryl Keen, chief fire officer for Hertfordshire, said: “It is somewhat disappointing that it has taken until this point for the true depth of feeling around the IRMP to become apparent, especially given that there are over 700 operational staff in the Service but only 120 responses from both staff and the public were received during the three month consultation period prior to publication of the Integrated Risk Management Plan.
“However, it is important for any organisation to listen to the concerns of its staff and so I have spoken with the secretary of the FBU in Hertfordshire and we will be meeting shortly to discuss their concerns.
“With regards to the suggestion that the service is relying on volunteers to do overtime to cover shortfalls, it is correct that the service does use overtime to meet crewing requirements, however this has been a conscious discussion which has been kept under regular review with the Fire Brigades Union and is an opportunity for firefighters, where they wish to volunteer, to work extra hours and earn extra salary.”