Whether it was dealing with the aftermath of terrorism in 2005, responding to the riots in 2011, or helping communities during the terrible flooding in 2012, Fire Brigades Union members have provided outstanding service to the people of Britain in the most trying of circumstances.
And day in, day out – come wind, rain, or shine – they fight fires of every imaginable type in every part of the country. Each day, on average, they rescue 19 people from fires. That’s over 7,000 lives saved each year: men, women and children. And over the past decade, thanks to the fire brigades pioneering work on fire prevention, they have been able to cut the number of fire deaths by a third.
We don’t say it often enough in Britain, but fire-fighters deserve more than just our respect and recognition; they deserve our admiration. However, these are profoundly worrying times for FBU members, facing some hugely demanding challenges – and none is greater of course than pensions.
The Government wants to impose a National Pension Age of 60 – despite no medical evidence to support such a move - despite the review by Dr Tony Williams not supporting an NPA of 60 for current firefighters and despite no redeployment opportunities being available for older firefighters facing dismissal on fitness grounds.
It is clear to see this is a pension scheme that is clearly not fit for purpose. A fitness regime that is simply not workable, and potentially discriminates against women and thousands of dedicated firefighters facing the sack.
Central Government funding for the Fire & Rescue Service is being slashed by 25% over four years. Some 1,500 firefighter posts were cut in the first year of the coalition alone. Response times are now two minutes slower than they were a decade ago.
And across Britain, nearly 70 fire stations are at risk of closure with many more likely to be downgraded. On Saturday, I supported a March and rally in Sunderland ahead of a meeting which will see Tyne and Wear Fire Authority make a decision whether or not to close Sunderland Central Station.
There is added danger in the form of the planned “mutualisation” of the fire service in Cleveland. This could be used as a test-bed for the rest of the UK – despite opposition from local people, in what is one of the highest risk industrial areas in Europe.
The FBU is absolutely right to warn that privatisation will cost lives. Our Fire Service is not for sale, fighting fires is about public need not private profit.
Beth Farhat, Regional Secretary Northern TUC