Page last updated at 14:49 GMT, Thursday, 24 September 2009 15:49 UK

Fire strike follows year-long row

By Samantha Haines
BBC News, South Yorkshire

South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue service headquarters
The fire service recently moved into new headquarters in Sheffield

The decision by firefighters in South Yorkshire to go on strike is the latest development in a long-running dispute over changes to shift patterns.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has been at loggerheads with the county's fire service since October 2008, when plans for new 12-hour day and night shifts were announced.

Firefighters currently work 15-hour night shifts and nine-hour day shifts.

The fire service says taking three hours from the less-productive night shift and adding them to the day shift will lead to improved services and increase available time for firefighter training.

We have female members and single parents who would find this imposed change impossible to deal with
Ian Murray, FBU, August 2009

The FBU's main complaint about the changes is the "massive impact" it says the longer day shift will have on family life and childcare for its members.

The fire service argues that the changes will allow it to offer "family friendly" working arrangements, such as shift swaps and job shares.

In December 2008, when the fire authority voted in favour of the new shifts, the row escalated.

The decision sparked protests by angry union members who, when a date for the start of the new shifts was set, voted in favour of industrial action.

In June crews started an overtime ban.

Dismissal threat

Chief fire officer Mark Smitherman said he was "extremely disappointed" by the action, which he said was a "risk to the public" because it forced fire engines off the road.

A month later staff stopped doing "detached" duties - where firefighters go to other stations to cover staffing shortfalls.

Firefighters in training
The fire service said the changes would allow staff to have more training

Talks between the two parties continued, but no deal was reached.

The FBU's decision to ballot for strike action came last month, after its members were threatened with dismissal.

The fire service is issuing staff with new contracts, which say they will work the new 12-hour shifts.

If firefighters continue to refuse to work the new shifts, the fire service said they would be dismissed in the new year, "as a last resort", for breach of contract.

This is a minor change to move three hours from the night shift to the day shift which will make our firefighters and the people of South Yorkshire significantly safer
Fire service spokesman, August 2009

The FBU said the threat was the "tip of the iceberg" and showed a "callous indifference" to firefighters and their families.

Its members were asked whether they were willing to take further action.

And the result of the ballot was announced on Thursday, with 565 members voting in favour of strikes and 116 against.

A series of stoppages are likely to take place from next month, but both parties are still hoping a deal can be reached in the meantime.

The FBU has put forward an alternative proposal of 10-hour day shifts and 14-hour night shifts, and the fire service is considering the option.

If the strike does take place, the fire service said "extensive" plans were in place to ensure it could maintain its emergency service.

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