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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 April, 2003, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
Fire dispute overshadows bold new vision
By Chris Summers
BBC News Online

Modernisation of the fire service has begun in earnest, despite the dispute being unresolved. London's first fire station for a decade - complete with a community safety office and proper facilities for women - has opened against a background of simmering resentment.

It is the first new fire station in London for a decade
Last week local authorities were told to push ahead with plans to modernise the fire service even though the long-running pay dispute has not been settled.

London's first entirely new station for a decade, in Hammersmith, is a bricks-and-mortar symbol of modernisation.

Both management and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) say they are in favour of modernisation.

The employers want firefighters to take a more active role in teaching people in the community how to reduce the risk of fire, chemical spillages and accidents.

The union want to be "properly recompensed" for taking on extra skills.

We are doing what is right for the 7.4 million people of London
Valerie Shawcross
London Fire Authority

The new 7.7m Hammersmith station is built with modernisation in mind and has a large community safety office.

Both sides are committed to increasing the number of women and ethnic minority firefighters and the Hammersmith building has proper facilities to cater for female employees.

Women currently make up 2% of the workforce in London (120 firefighters out of 6,000), up from zero only five years ago.

Property review

Valerie Shawcross, chairman of the London Fire Authority, told BBC News Online: "The new Hammersmith station is really good news but at the moment we are an organisation which still has a lot of internal grief going on."

Even the official opening has been delayed until the dispute is over.

She said: "Some of the changes we are making are probably in the face of opposition from the union but we are doing what is right for the 7.4 million people of London."

Firefighters on the picket line outside the old Hammersmith fire station
Ms Shawcross said the old station - built in 1913 - was attractive, but was impractical and inconsistent with a modern fire service.

The new station will include a community fire safety centre where local residents and businesses can get advice from specialist staff on reducing the risks to themselves and their neighbours and customers.

Dormitory-style accommodation has been replaced with private rooms and there are better facilities for women.

The old building will be sold off and will join other former fire stations in the capital, which have been turned into wine bars, offices and even a community theatre.

The London Fire Authority is conducting a property review before deciding whether it should close any of its 112 stations (and one boat station), or open new ones.

They use modernisation as a euphemism for cuts
Mick Shaw

One station in the Isle of Dogs is to have flats built above it, but it is not clear if any will be rented out to firefighters.

A new control and command centre is also being built in Greenwich, replacing the current 999 call centre on the Albert Embankment which was, said Ms Shawcross, "on its last legs".

Union fears

She said: "Hammersmith is a physical manifestation of the changes we are trying to make to the service but the dispute has got in the way of all this.

"The union have never wanted to change and that has always been the blockage."

But the FBU rejected the suggestion it was opposed to modernisation.

Woman firefighter at Paddington rail crash
Only 2% of London's firefighters are women

Mick Shaw, a member of the FBU's executive council in London, said: "Modernisation is a word which means many things to many people. We are in favour of developing new procedures. They use modernisation as a euphemism for cuts."

He said they feared the London Fire Authority would follow the example set in Tyne and Wear, where eight old fire stations were closed and replaced by five new stations.

FBU spokesman Duncan Milligan told BBC News Online: "We have no problem with modernisation. What we are opposed to are cuts. The government plans to reduce the number of firefighters nationwide by 4,500 and reduce the national standards for attending 999 calls.

"To hold up one station in Hammersmith and claim it is indicative of a policy of modernisation is nonsense."

The government and the employers insist pay and modernisation must go hand in hand.

The station is one of the most advanced in the country

Ms Shawcross said: "If the union accepted the 16% pay offer which is on the table then a qualified firefighter in London with five years' experience would be earning 29,300 from July 2004.

"I don't want to prolong the argument with the union but every public service has changed and they have not necessarily had huge pay hikes."

Mr Shaw said the FBU was prepared to accept the 16% offer but not with the "strings attached", which included tearing up the disputes procedure and the agreement over shifts.


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