Firefighters in Bury St Edmunds are among Fire Brigade Union members across the country staging a walk-out today in protest over changes to their pensions.
At noon, around 25 firefighters - both on-duty and off-duty staff - gathered outside Bury Fire Station, in Parkway.
They are protesting against what they say are ‘wholly unrealistic and unworkable changes’ to their pensions, and will remain on strike until 4pm.
Steve Collins, branch secretary for the FBU in Bury, said: “We’ve been in talks with the government for two years over changes to our pension scheme. On June 19, Fire Minister Brandon Lewis gave us the final proposal. It was unacceptable to Fire Brigade Union members. Therefore, we took lawful ballot for industrial action, which is the last resort for us, because the Government wasn’t prepared to talk anymore.”
He said members hoped today’s action would force the Government to listen to evidence that showed firefighters working to the age of 60 on the imposed fitness levels was ‘unachievable’ in the majority of cases.
The FBU argues that firefighters are being asked to pay far more into their pension scheme, although more than half will be sacked before they are able to retire.
Mr Collins said: “Firefighters already pay some of the highest contributions into their pension scheme across the public sector, currently around 12.9 per cent. This will be going up to 13.2 per cent as an average and, for our officer members, maybe as high as 17 per cent of their contributions.
“What they could face, before they’re actually able to draw a pension, is being sacked on capability grounds due to the fitness standards, which will mean no job or pension.”
He added: “What we’re asking for is fairness across our pension scheme.”
Keith Handscomb, of the East Anglia FBU, said: “Responding to terrorist attacks, flash-floods, rescuing people and their families from car, train and plane crashes - and of course fighting fires inside very hot, smoke-filled, burning buildings - is a dangerous, dirty and physically demanding job. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted and, as the Government’s own expert evidence shows, it’s not a job firefighters can perform at the high fitness levels required up to the age of 60.
“But despite their own expert report highlighting the dangers, the Government has decided 60-year-old firefighters it will be. The same expert evidence also points out that up to two-thirds of firefighters will face the sack in their late 50’s as a result, before they can even reach their new pension age. The whole situation is ludicrous.”
He added: “Everyone inside the fire service knows, and most politicians agree in private, that the new pension plans for firefighters are ludicrous and unworkable. We cannot be part of this lie. We cannot pretend it is fair or safe for firefighters, or for the public.
“What will work are occupational pensions fit for the actual occupation modern-day firefighters do.”
Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service is currently operating a reduced service, with 999 calls being responded to by the nearest available fire appliances to emergencies, crewed by staff and managers who are not striking.
Senior fire officers said yesterday they expected to have around 20 of Suffolk’s 35 fire stations available over today’s four hour strike period.
Cllr Colin Spence, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for public protection, said: “Because of the reduced number of fire engines available, we are asking the public to be particularly careful and vigilant during the four hour strike period.
“Simple common sense precautions such as testing your smoke alarm, keeping an eye on food cooking, looking out for vulnerable neighbours and friends will reduce the risk of fires.
“When driving, we encourage people to take extra care, wear a seat belt, do not use a mobile phone while driving and do not drive when tired or after drinking. All of these will help reduce the risk of road collisions.”