This month marks the tenth anniversary of the second national firefighters strike, the legacy and impact of which has altered almost everything about the way fire and rescue services go about their work. In an exercept of his column from the November issue of FIRE Magazine, David Wright reports 10 years on - click here to subscribe:
Whether the changes brought about by the second national fire strike have been to the overall benefit of society, or even firefighters and employers, remains very much dependent upon the individual or organisational perspective. If the newspapers provide the first draft of the strike's history, then perhaps now is the time to reflect and consider the long view of the strike and its legacy.
It is hard now to look back and get a sense of the strength of feeling at the time in the winter of 2002/3 when firefighters took industrial action to support their pay claim for £30,000 which represented a 40 per cent pay rise. At the time however, the statistics on pay parity and comparisons with other groups of workers gave rise to a grievance which simmered for over a year before finally exploding with the first walk out on November 13.
From the perspective of service managers and principal officers there had also been a build-up of frustration over a number of years with the Service's collective failure to shake off the inertia and make progress on a number of areas. These included the changes required in legislation with both the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order and Fire and Rescue Service Act being talked about, mulled over but not actually being delivered despite all sides agreeing the need for progress.
National Strike on November 13
After months of increased tension and posturing the strike went 'hot' on November 13 and spluttered on for several months as strike dates were cancelled at the last moment in the hope of compromise, only to be revived as protracted discussions failed to reach agreement. For many, as with all strikes, there were mixed feelings about taking the ultimate sanction of withdrawal of labour. Firefighters, reluctant to remove support from their communities, in some cases permitted themselves to respond to life-threatening emergencies.
Nationally, and it needs to be remembered that this dispute took place in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (although some would say the strike was encouraged by the perceived public sympathy for all firefighters following the attacks), the FBU made arrangements to provide national support if a terrorist attack occurred. Hence the whole point of withdrawing labour was undermined by willingness to provide support for 'serious events'.
By the time the strike fizzled out in June 2003, the public, firefighters, employers and government seemed fed up with the dispute and the agenda had started to move on to bigger stories - Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Firefighters achieved a 16 per cent pay increase over three years and the linkage of pay to the upper quartile of semi-skilled workers had been broken and replaced by a new pay structure. Retained duty staff were given equal pay and pension rights. In return, changes were made to almost all aspects of the way the Service operated.
The restrictions on duty systems were removed and the traditional shift patterns of whole time shift, day crewing, nucleus and retained were no longer considered as the only possible arrangements of cover. The new Integrated Risk Management Plans, which (in theory at least) matched resources to risk, required a more flexible approach to crewing patterns and this was achieved paving the way for new shift patterns and innovative systems including low activity station cover and '24 on 72 off' duty shift patterns.
There were also major changes in terms of career development and Service management. Statutory examinations were dispatched along with the Appointments and Promotion Regulations which opened the way up to direct entry for certain roles within the Service. Whether this was truly to improve Service performance or to take revenge upon senior managers in the Service, including senior members of the Chief and Assistant Chief fire Officers Association, who had supported (actively or passively) the sentiment, but not the actions of the strike.
Another long running issue, talked about but not acted upon was the pensions 'time bomb'. While not directly linked to the strike, in the years before the dispute a number of 'elephants' in the collective bargaining room were repeatedly kicked into the long grass (excuse the mixed metaphors) as no-one wanted to catch the inevitable political fallout. Exacerbated by the recession, pension changes would have become more problematic had a dispute, which exhausted the Service's appetite for strife, not taken place in 2002/3.
As part of the modernisation agenda, discipline regulations, then a statutory instrument, was replaced by a more modern approach to managing discipline, using an ACAS based system which should have simplified discipline. However in some services, the ACAS system was merged into the discipline process to produce a cumbersome and time-consuming process every bit as unwieldy as its predecessor.
On the more positive side (and there is one), the legislation introduced on the back of the dispute could have lasting benefits if they continue to be supported. The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 put a whole new range of Service activities on statutory footing for the first time. The FRS now has a duty to respond to non-fire emergencies, road collisions and a wide range of other incidents.
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 has been something of a more mixed blessing. One of the most powerful pieces of legislation ever introduced for fire safety, it was effectively developed and introduced in a managed style. This made sure that the Service was ready for it from day one, compared with the introduction of its ancestor, the Fire Precautions Act, 1971, which was given to brigades who were told to 'get on with it' with very little training in some areas.
On the down side, awareness on the part of those who it applies to is still very low. From a cost effectiveness point of view, the anticipation that premises owners could pick up a guide and undertake a fire risk assessment after an hour's reading has proved wildly optimistic, and an industry of consultants has grown up to fill the void in knowledge.
One of the unintended consequences of the dispute has been the successful management of unwanted fire signals. During the dispute, call management included the restriction of attendances to automatic alarm signals with limited negative effect on safety. Some services, notably Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, continued this policy and went from being the worst performer nationally in terms of unwanted fire signals to one of the best. Changes in national guidance from the Chief Fire Officers Association, have been less aggressive in resolving the UFS problem but are making inroads into what had become an endemic problem for the FRS.
Was it Worth it?
So are we in a better place now than then? One thing is certain: the Service of 2012 is drastically different to the one of a decade ago. The way the Service operates, is managed and its role has greatly morphed into a more flexible organisation meeting the changing demands of the communities it serves.
Fire deaths are lower than any time for the past 50 years and the Service should take some, but not all, the credit for that. Prevention is now a way of life for most firefighters and even in busy city centre stations as calls continue to reduce.
At the end of the dispute Service morale was at an all-time low. The very public battering, particularly by the press and TV, still in love with Tony Blair at that time, left no one undamaged. The FBU was viewed as Luddites, firefighters portrayed as greedy, managers and employers ineffective.
The uniformed principal management of the Service - CACFOA - missed an opportunity to step up to the mark, avoided taking a leading role and emerged emasculated from the experience. Fortunately, the public has been forgiving of the Service and firefighters remain popular in the national psyche.
So was it really worth it? Perhaps it was ultimately like the First World War - nobody wanted it, nobody benefitted from it but once the wheels were set in motion, the timetable for a collision was fixed and conflict was inevitable and regret universal.
The world has moved on in the ten years since the strike and the problems facing the FRS and the country have got bigger. A small dispute ten years ago has been forgotten by most people. The important thing is that the Service remembers.