Hampshire firefighters stage four-hour strike

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FIREFIGHTERS walked out of their stations across Hampshire today for a four-hour strike over pensions.

The walk-out, which began at noon, saw firefighters take to picket lines in a protest over government proposals to have them work until the age of 60 instead of the present 55.

Striking firefighters man a picket line at Southsea fire station today

Striking firefighters man a picket line at Southsea fire station today

Nigel McCullen, chairman of Hampshire Fire Brigades Union and a firefighter in Southsea, said there was a ‘good show’ of support among firefighters and the general public.

‘We are asking people to be more vigilant and we are also asking the public to contact their MPs to get the government to get back around the table and talking to us again,’ he said.

‘It is difficult to tell how many people are out but I am confident we have got a strong show of firefighters.’

Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service officials said that between 35 and 38 manned applicances were covering the county during the stoppage, around half of the ususual cover.

Neil Odin, assistant chief officer at Hampshire Fire and Rescue, said: ‘There were no major incidents. We had a fire in Southampton that was dealt with quickly and a road traffic accident near Botley and a person was trapped and cut out. They are the only two notable incidents. There was nothing else urgent.

‘We would like to thank the people of Hampshire for stepping up and taking extra care. We have maintained 35 and at some times 38 engines across Hampshire, which is about half what we normally have.

‘What we have in Portsmouth was fire crews in the city but not necessarily in the fire stations.’

The assistant chief officer said the authority was prepared for more strikes, and said he hoped the union and government could get back into negotiation talks.

At Southsea Fire Station 30 union members took part in the action.

Mick Masters of Southsea’s white watch said he thought 55 and above was too old to be entering burning buildings.

He added any major incidents would be attended by fire crews while they are on strike.

‘Going by what happened on the last strike, I can’t remember one incident that we did not respond to.’

He thanked members of Portsmouth Trades Council who stood outside the fire station in solidarity.

Jon Woods, chairman of the trades council, said he and a colleague were supporting their ‘brothers and sisters’ in the union.

Two crews from Southsea had responded to a call for back-up at a security alert at Portsmouth law courts centre a few minutes before the walkout. Once the all-clear was sounded around an hour later, they returned to the station and joined their colleagues on the picket line.

Mr Odin said he would like to thank the firefighters, who stayed at the scene until they were no longer needed.

‘We are grateful to them for staying because afterwards they did go back to the strike. I think that shows the relationship that we have with our firefighters. We will continue to support them but we cannot get involved in the political debate.’

Firefighters in England will get their full pension at 60 under government plans.

But the Fire Brigades’ Union has said many firefighters will be unable to maintain their fitness levels into their late 50s and this could endanger them and the public.

The union has also said those who retire earlier would face a vastly reduced pension.

Mr McCullen said further industrial action ‘can’t be ruled out’ but that the government could avoid more walk-outs by resuming negotiations.

He said: ‘It’s with a heavy heart we do this. We dedicate our professional lives to keeping the public safe.

‘Further strikes can’t be ruled out. But if there are meaningful talks the strikes won’t happen.’

Les Skarratts, a union official, said the government reforms were ‘unsustainable and dangerous’.

He added: ‘The 60-year-old firefighter will be expected to run up these ladders to effect these rescues.’

And he said there were few redeployment opportunities for older firefighters.

West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service also ran a reduced service during the four hours.

Sean Ruth, chief fire officer for West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, said: ‘The safety of the public and our staff is always our priority and I want to reassure people in West Sussex that we will still provide a response to emergencies during this industrial action.

‘If you have a genuine emergency you should still dial 999.

‘Inevitably though, a period of industrial action would mean our normal level of response would be reduced and so I would urge the public to take extra steps to protect themselves and reduce the risk of emergencies occurring.

‘Simple things like ensuring your home has a working smoke alarm, not leaving cooking unattended and extinguishing cigarettes properly can make the difference between needing to dial 999 or not.’