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Tuesday, 26 November, 2002, 17:49 GMT
Modernisation fans flames of dispute
Fireman on a picket line in Belfast
Striking firemen are under pressure to reform working practices

Despite the hostility on the picket line, the government insists any more money for firefighters must be matched with reform. But what does 'modernisation' mean?

Part-time firefighters in many parts of the country are working normally despite the ongoing strike. They are a 15,000 strong group scattered around the UK.

It is a separate outfit, with its own staff and appliances but these firefighters would be happy to share equipment and work alongside their full-time colleagues in the fire service.

They claim the Fire Brigades' Union is standing in the way of co-operation.

Derek Chadbon of the Retained Firefighters' Union says his firefighters don't understand the reluctance to change.

"We can't understand why they won't modernise. They have a strong argument for a pay increase, we think their argument would be stronger if they agreed to modernisation.

It now seems as if the dispute boils down to one word, modernisation. Government ministers are always talking about modernising public services.

Second jobs

The trouble is that modernisation means different things to different people.

To the government it means changing the shift pattern.

Tony Blair at press conference
Blair says no more cash without modernisation

When on duty, firefighters are on shift for two days and two long nights, followed by four days off.

This allows many of them to hold down second jobs, in all sorts of other occupations.

Greg Birdseye works for the Audit Commission and has been involved in reviewing the country's fire cover.

"We looked at, for example, fire cover overnight compared with during the day and there are fewer fires at night, fewer calls to control rooms at night. Therefore it might be possible to reduce manning levels overnight, compared with during the day", he told BBC News.

Modernisation would also mean an end to the ban on planned overtime.

For 25 years firefighters have refused to work extra hours, they argue it means they are fit when on duty and that the fire service has to maintain safe staffing levels.

Medical knowledge

Modernisation would mean asking firefighters to take on new roles acting as paramedics. That's because they are often the first emergency service on the scene ahead of the ambulance service.

Just carrying heart resuscitation equipment could save many lives. As with much of this business the union insists it is not against change.
Fire Brigades Union leader Andy Gilchrist
Firefighters leader Andy Gilchrist fears job cuts

Marc Richards is a striking firefighter and member of the Fire Brigade Union. He says that firefighters are not a cheap alternative to trained ambulance personnel and shouldn't be used as such.

"All they have looked at is trying to use the fire service as a substitute to ambulance service because we can respond quicker. By all means look at giving us defibrillators but please also fund the ambulance service properly", he said.

But for the strikers, modernisation is a euphemism for job losses and they have a point. The recent fire service review suggested new practices would fund an 11% pay rise.

The implication was that there would be better paid firefighters but fewer of them.

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