Why pension age is such a burning issue for firefighters

EQUIPMENT Reporter Kimberley Barber is kitted out in full breathing apparatus. Picture: Allan Hutchings (133237-062)
EQUIPMENT Reporter Kimberley Barber is kitted out in full breathing apparatus. Picture: Allan Hutchings (133237-062)
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Imagine the absolute terror of waking up in bed and realising the room is full of smoke.

You make your way, panicked, to the door and see the corridor engulfed in fire.

You’re on the fifth floor of a block of flats and the only way out is through the window. Who do you want to see battling to save you?

A fit, strapping 30-year-old, with the strength and power of youth, with a decade’s experience in the job?

Or a grey-haired pensioner, shaking and wheezing in a situation that could mean the difference between your life or death?

Okay, so the comparison may be a little extreme, but ageing is a fact of life and one that is ever present in the argument over firefighters’ pensions that has seen them down tools and go on strike.

The main reason behind the strikes, which have seen fire stations left empty, is the firefighters’ pension age.

Nigel McCullen, chairman of the Hampshire branch of the Fire Brigades Union, explains: ‘No firefighter wants to go on strike, but it was something that we had to fight for.

‘We are in talks because of the strike action – the government came back to us and said “we are willing to look at this” and they are now progressing with talks.’

The FBU argues that raising the pension age from 55 to 60 will leave firefighters out of pocket and will lead to more over-55s being sacked due to their declining fitness level.

Currently, firefighters can retire at 55 on a full pension that is paid immediately but next year all public sector pensions are changing.

The government says people are living longer, which is placing a greater strain on public service pensions.

The retirement age was set at 60 for members of the New Firefighters’ Pension Scheme in 2006. It is the same age as the police and the armed forces, despite these professions having more back office roles to absorb ageing workers.

The 2015 pension means a firefighter could still retire at 55, but would have to accept a reduction in the amount of pension they receive – up to 21.8 per cent. This is something that the FBU does not agree with.

It argues that if a firefighter has paid into a pension and then has to retire, particularly because of ill health, they should receive the full amount they have paid into it.

The government claims the firefighters would still receive a good pension, despite the reduction, and that the majority of firefighters should be able to work until 60 by doing the average amount of exercise recommended for all adults.

Mr McCullen says, ‘If you look at Premiership footballers, or athletes, there’s not many in their 50s and there’s a very good reason for that.

‘Once they get to a certain age, their bodies are not strong enough to keep up.

‘When you get to 55, it’s only natural that your body begins to change and your fitness declines.

‘Because of the things we’re asking our bodies to do, the physical exertion, we should be able to retire at 55, however the new scheme will increase the age to 60.

‘If somebody has leave at 55, they should come away with the full pension.

‘It’s not fair to expect the firefighters to work hard for years and have such a drastic reduction when they are only a few years off the retirement age.’

The FBU wants reassurance that firefighters will not be sacked if their fitness declines in their late 50s.

Mr McCullen says, ‘It’s a fact of life that people get older and they get more heart and lung problems and they can’t keep up as well.

‘There’s no age discrimination in the firefighter’s role – if you are 55 you do exactly the same job as a 25-year-old. The pressure is on the older person.

‘If you were in a high-rise building, for example, and the lift is out, we have to run the hose up the stairs, in full kit with breathing apparatus. It’s strenuous work and it’s not right for firefighters or the public to put people in that situation who aren’t up to the full capability.

‘If they pass their fitness test, then keep them on but if they have to go because they get too old and can’t keep up with the pace, then at least let them go with the same pension.’

These changes, and other elements, are being discussed by the FBU and the government and while talks are under way there’s an agreement there will be no more strikes.

But if talks break down, then fire stations could be left empty once again.

HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE

TO PUT to the test whether the firefighters’ work can be done by anyone, I spend the day with Fareham’s blue watch and join in with their training.

Firstly, I’m kitted out in full firefighter attire and climb to the top of the four-storey tower.

It’s no comfortable staircase – it’s a cold metal ladder up to the fourth floor and with big firefighter boots on, it’s not an easy ascent. Once up there, 70ft high with the wind whistling by, the concrete floor seems a long way down.

A firefighter is about to rescue me and I have to step out over the ledge and dangle down.

It’s pretty scary to take that leap of faith but luckily I’m in safe hands as firefighter Mark Hilton swoops down and abseils me to the bottom.

No sooner am I on the ground then I’m kitted out with breathing apparatus and sent in to the fire simulation unit at the bottom of the tower.

It’s dark and smoky, not to mention hot (although nowhere near as hot as a real fire). The kit is heavy, especially the tank on my back, and I have to remember to move every few seconds or an ear-piercing alarm goes off.

There’s a lot to think about. I’m handed a thermal camera, which is also heavy and bulky, to hang around my neck so that I can make out shapes in the pitch black.

My visor is steamy and the breathing apparatus makes me feel confined. There are hoses to haul about and many things on the floor, ever-present as a risk to trip me up.

We go upstairs, the three of us, all shouting instructions so that the others can hear over the breathing apparatus, following protocol to check every step, all the door frames and stay close to wall.

We reach the top and I wave the thermal camera about and can make out a body, slumped on the bottom bunk bed.

I follow watch manager Simon Whelan’s instructions and carefully carry the body out of the building.

My heart’s racing and my senses are in overdrive. Stumbling out of the simulator, I’m lagging behind these two strapping firemen.

We manage to rescue our trapped person, but I’m sure it’s got nothing to do with my input.

Spending the day with these guys has certainly made me realise what an incredibly strenuous work they do, and that rescuing someone from a burning building is not only physically demanding, but mentally demanding too.

FLOOD RESCUE

IT’S not all about fire – the fire and rescue service plays a major role in flood rescue.

The Fareham station is home to a flood rescue unit and it has been out more than 40 times this year already.

The unit contains a mobile office, two power boats, two inflatable rescue boats, an outboard and a rescue sled that can work on mud.

It’s a major part of the work and means the firefighters have to undergo additional training.

In fact, the first call out of 2014 for the Fareham station was a water rescue from Port Solent in the early hours of New Year’s Day.

Paul Cambell, white watch crew manager, said the crew has been sent out all over the county to assist with the recent flooding, rescuing 32 people trapped in Lymington and seven people from the closer-to-home Solent Breezes holiday park, in Warsash.

Mr Cambell said, ‘For the last few weeks all we’ve seemed to do is clean down the kit and dry off.’

It’s certainly been busier than last year, as the same period in 2013 saw the unit called out just four times.