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Wednesday, 27 November, 2002, 16:19 GMT
Fire service changes 'could cost lives'
Green Goddess crews
Tony Blair praised the military cover during the strike
The country's largest union says government proposals to merge emergency control rooms as part of a modernised fire service could cost lives.

Unison said it was angry at being "dragged" into the firefighters' dispute because of the government's money-saving plans.

The union stepped in to the row as fire service employers and Fire Service Minister Nick Raynsford spent Wednesday discussing what savings could be made by changing working practices and how to fund any pay deal.

Exploratory talks between the Fire Brigades Union and the employers are set to resume on Friday.

You can't afford to have 'call waiting' while people's lives are at risk

Maggie Dunn, Unison

Chancellor Gordon Brown made a clear reference to the firefighters in his pre-Budget report to the Commons, saying "inflationary and unaffordable settlements" put the economy at risk.

He said: "To continue to steer a steady course, we must hold firm in our demand for discipline in pay-setting across the economy."

Earlier, Downing Street played down a suggestion by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, that 11,000 Fire Service jobs could go as part of the deal.

Tony Blair's official spokesman said Mr Prescott was simply saying 20% of firefighters were due to retire in the next two or three years and may not need replacing.

He added: "That does not mean we foresee a reduction in starting levels at that level."

Open in new window : Opposed to change?
Picketing firefighters have their say

But he said the FBU's 40% pay claim meant the government had to look at the entire fire service and have a strategic overview.

Unison's response was triggered by Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement of a review of joint control rooms - which have been operated by the military providing cover during strikes.

Earlier this week he said the centralised control rooms - set up jointly by the military, senior fire officers and the police - had proved highly successful since the eight-day strike started on Friday.

Unison wrote to Mr Raynsford to voice "strong objections" to the plans.

Specialist roles

The union's senior national health officer Maggie Dunn said: "The proposals will turn emergency control rooms into call centres and anyone who has to deal with a call centre will know just how difficult and frustrating the experience can be.

"If they are really keen on saving money, why not go the whole hog and do what some banks have already done - divert calls to Bombay.

Some firefighters are keeping busy on the picket line
"These jobs are not interchangeable and it is a gross simplification to suggest that they are."

Unison said ambulance controllers had special skills that often meant the difference between life and death, while fire controllers had a distinct but vital role.

The union's general secretary Dave Prentis said the government risked alienating millions of public sector workers if the dispute was not settled quickly.

A 16% pay offer was on the table last week before the government stepped in, maintaining that without modernisation there would be no extra money to fund any rise above 4%.

Chairman of the Local Government Association, Sir Jeremy Beecham, said on Wednesday the employers were "continuing to explore the costings and savings that may be yielded by modernisation".

He was meeting with the author of the review of fire services, Sir George Bain, and other officials before meeting Mr Raynsford at midday for more exploratory talks.

Mr Raynsford told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the alterations proposed by Bain involved changes to working practice which would be taken for granted in most sectors of the economy.

"It is only the FBU who are resisting by holding on to their restrictive practices long after they have disappeared elsewhere," he said.

Seven deaths

The BBC's Branwyn Jeffreys said there would be no interim government funding without evidence of long-term savings.

She said the employers believed that over six years they would be 10m short.

But over the next three years they would be 109m short.

Seven people have now died in house fires since the start of the eight-day strike on Friday.

The BBC's Rory Cellan Jones
"Right now it is only the employers and government who are talking"
Cllr Ted George, fire brigade employers' spokesman
"What we want is flexibility and delivery of service that we currently provide"
Chris Leslie, Fire Safety minister
"There are aspects of modernisation that can be done without job losses"

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27 Nov 02 | Politics
27 Nov 02 | N Ireland
27 Nov 02 | England
27 Nov 02 | Scotland
26 Nov 02 | Politics
27 Nov 02 | UK

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