1:07pm Wednesday 4th September 2013
Not everyone will be aware, that at the moment the FBU (Fire Brigades Union) are balloting members for strike action due to the ongoing pension dispute.
As a dedicated and professional firefighter, I pride myself on keeping the community I serve safe through education, prevention and response, I do not take any decision to stop doing that for any period of time lightly.
A lot of people rely on us to keep them safe as well as paying taxes that contribute towards our wages. So for that reason I feel it is only fair that I explain the reasoning behind my decision to vote yes in the ballot for strike action.
First of all, I realise that in the last decade or so there are a number of people who lost huge chunks if not all of their pension, as banks and government gambled with their future. This is wrong and I have every sympathy. In fact my own father faces the same issue. There may be little sympathy for the public sector employees current situation; but ask yourself. If your pension was reduced or squandered away, was it right? Would it be fair if it happened to you? I’d guess the answer to both questions is no. So now ask yourself, if you had the chance to stand up for what is right, would you? And I think that the majority of you will say yes, you would stand up for what is right.
This dispute is not about money alone; yes we feel we’re being robbed to pay a deficit caused by bankers and MP’s, and not the majority of the tax paying hard working nation, but there are bigger issues here. Issues of public and personal safety.
All that anyone really wants from the fire service that they pay for is a fire engine which arrives in time with the best equipment for the job in hand and enough fit and healthy firefighters on the fire engine to help you in your hour of need. My main point here is that the firefighters, who naturally rush towards the danger that everyone else is trying to rush away from need to be fit healthy and able to work flat out in arduous, dangerous and testing situations; making split second decisions that are literally life saving or life changing.
So just for a second, I’d like anyone reading this to think of the first 60 year old that comes to mind, now think do you believe that they would be fit and healthy enough to face these dangerous conditions? I’m assuming that the vast majority will feel that at 60 years old it would be impossible to carry out these tasks, without posing a risk to personal and public safety.
Therefore it may shock you that this is exactly what the government and especially Brandon Lewis the fire minister is proposing. I’m can tell you honestly that as a serving firefighter I would not feel safe working along side a 60 year old, or indeed facing the inherently dangerous situations we face daily as a 60 year old myself. To put it bluntly, it’s dangerous and irresponsible.
You may think that there are other jobs the older employees could do, this isn’t the case in the fire service. There are not. We had a communications visit from a senior officer in the last couple of months, this man is charged with dissuading firefighters from taking strike action, yet he admitted that at the time of his visit there were only 12 redeployment opportunities in the whole of the UK fire and rescue service.
So, what happens to those who cannot be redeployed? To put it bluntly, they’ll face the sack. Some might ask, cant the older firefighters just drive or do the less strenuous jobs? What happens when there are 2 or 3 elderly firefighters on a fire engine? This is a realistic possibility in future. Who would do the less strenuous work then, and who does that leave to do the arduous and dangerous tasks? There’s also the common suggestion that the elderly firefighters could just drive. With age comes deterioration of reactions and eye sight. I’m sure that you all expect a fire engine to be driven as quickly as is safely possibly towards an incident, it’s an emergency after all. So why would we want elderly firefighters with diminishing reactions having this responsibility thrust upon them? Would you feel safe on the road given this scenario?
In fact a recent review of national pension age for firefighters carried out by Dr Williams, and commissioned by the government, stated that for firefighters age 55 upwards to achieve a reasonable standard of VO2 max fitness, (this is the measure of fitness that has been decided will be best to judge operational fitness of a firefighter) they would have to be at a fitness standard often found in Olympic athletes. A standard that up to 85% of firefighters would fail age 55 and up to 90% would fail age 60. He does admit that this is worse case scenario. So therefore he offers a best case scenario, where approximately 15% of firefighters will be unfit for duty at age 55 and 23% at age 60, so that’s nearly a quarter of all firefighters who would be unfit for duty, and that’s best case scenario. Also to achieve this level of fitness, firefighters would need to be recruited with a level of fitness much higher than currently required at entry into the service, and much higher than national average for the general public. Somehow this report has never come into the public domain, and the snap shots that our fire minister has used are only best case scenario, completely ignoring worse case scenario or finding a middle ground, and without adding any of the background factors such as fitness requirements at entry and the amount of physical exercise required to maintain fitness levels. Brandon Lewis seems hell bent on hiding any whole truths, and only releasing part truths that show him in a positive light to the public.
VO2 max is a measure of cardiovascular fitness. I’m no expert, but to achieve cardiovascular fitness you need to do regular exercise such as running, cycling, swimming etc. this will obviously have an impact on joints, muscles etc. at age 55 – 60 and after a life of hard exercise to stay within required fitness levels, as well as facing demanding operational duties I very much doubt that my joints will up to much at all. I will be fatigued, stiffer, have slower reactions and therefore I’ll be less able to respond adequately to emergencies.
When questioned about the possibility of mass sackings due to older firefighters being unfit for duty, Brandon Lewis refuses to reply with anything other than ‘We have not set a national fitness standard.’ Mr Lewis is very aware that individual brigades set these targets, and has a report sat on his desk telling him what most of you, and indeed those within the fire service know, that the majority of elderly firefighters will not reach these standards. I don’t think he needed a report to tell him this obvious truth. Then there’s the question; by not setting a national standard and expecting each chief officer to deal with it locally, is he suggesting that we lower fitness standards to make sure the elderly can achieve them? I’d suggest that lowering the standards is extremely dangerous! This would mean that the men and women expected to rescue you in your moment of need would have met a low fitness standard just to fit with government budget cuts. This really is a matter of life and death. The firefighter will be at risk, and therefore your safety will be at risk.
Brandon Lewis will also say that, ‘The firefighters pension scheme offers the opportunity for firefighters to retire at 55’ this may be true, but what he fails to say is that for each year before 60 that we retire, we will lose huge amounts of money from our pension. This basically forces the hand of firefighters to try to hang on at the end when they’re struggling and unfit. To safeguard their families and their own financial future, they must face this added risk of danger that increases with old age.
As I’ve just mentioned the financial future of firefighters, I’ll elaborate. I hear a lot of people suggesting that we get our pensions for nothing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are currently 2 different pension schemes for firefighters. If we joined after 2006 we contribute to the new firefighters pension scheme and pay over 9% of our salary and get less at the end due to changes already implemented to save costs, and there’s the old pension scheme the firefighters pension scheme from 1992 where members contribute over 13% of their salary. Some members have paid this for over 20 years yet face losing a big chunk of what they’ve paid in when the proposed changes come in to play. As well as losing a lot of what we were told we would get at the end of our pensionable service, firefighters on both current pension schemes will be forced to pay over 14% of our salary and this could rise further. Brandon Lewis will not give us a definite figure, he is being very evasive, I don’t believe that it’s unreasonable to know how much we will be charged before we sign up. He keeps stating that we will still get a very good pension at the end of it. He will not say how much it will cost us. There is no choice in this, we pay what we’re told to pay or get no fire service pension. I for one simply cannot afford to pay the massive amount per month that will be demanded from me, and I’m not alone.
In short, we are being told to work longer, pay more and get less at the end. The burden is not only financial, but a safety issue too. This issue doesn’t affect just firefighters. It affects the public that we protect, and who pay their taxes for us to protect them, you will be less safe, yet you’ll still pay just as much tax.
I am genuinely concerned. You may think it irresponsible to strike when we’re here to protect life. I agree, but I’m sure that the majority will believe that forcing the elderly to respond to numerous possible emergencies is irresponsible too. Faced with a choice of a few days of strike action where the risk will be great, or an endless future of elderly, unfit and unsafe firefighters, that will leave a nation in constant danger, I choose the immediate strike action to protect all of our futures, and as a stand against the dangerous and unjust proposals of the government and fire minister Brandon Lewis.
Lee Wilson, Dudley Fire Station
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