Socialist Worker

Essex fire strikers take control to defend their conditions

by Annette Mackin
Issue No. 2444

Pickets at Kelvedon Oark fire and rescue HQ on Friday morning

Pickets at Kelvedon Park fire and rescue HQ on Friday morning (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Striking emergency 999 control operators in Essex were defiant on their picket line today, Friday, after they escalated their walkout to nine days.

The workers began an eight-day strike on Tuesday of this week but have extended the action to hit back at attacks on their working conditions.

They are angry at shift changes and a new computer system.

“The pressure is incredible,” one striker told Socialist Worker. “I take calls from people who are trapped in house fires and I have to get a response in under 60 seconds.

“But I’ve been in situations where my screen is freezing and I have to work on a piece of paper.

“And management have the cheek to say the failures are down to ‘user error’—but we are highly trained, with invaluable local knowledge.”

Fire bosses have forced through shift changes which mean the emergency operators have to work longer, more unsocial hours. Many have had to leave their jobs.

Shifts are being changed from nine hour days and 15 hour nights with rest breaks to 12 hour days and 12 hour nights.  

“It’s had a real detrimental affect on people’s lives,” one striker told Socialist Worker.

“I don’t see my children in the morning. And when I get home I’m so tired it’s just dinner and then bed.”

But workers are also furious at the new computer system which keeps going wrong.

Control staff are the first response to fire and rescue emergencies.

They process information and pass it on to fire crews. But they also often have to guide people who have phoned to safety in dangerous situations.

They report the new system crashing at critical moments—which could put lives on the line.

The workers’ FBU union has put forward alternative proposals to fire bosses—but they have refused to budge.

Control staff have previously struck alongside firefighters but the nine-day walkout is the first time they have taken action alone.

Workers say they have been “overwhelmed” by solidarity from across the country.

On Friday some 30 pickets and supporters gathered outside the Kelvedon Park fire and rescue headquarters in Essex.

Essex FBU Control branch secretary Joy Bingham told Socialist Worker, “During talks with management you can feel quite isolated—but this shows us how strong we are.”

Another striker added, “We’ve had really good support from firefighters from all over.”

“Management like to think that they are not on our side. We know we have to keep going, because whatever they do to us they’ll go and do it to the firefighters next.”

The strikers are mostly women and two delegates attended TUC women’s conference on Thursday of this week where they got a standing ovation. Delegates also raised over £500 for the strike.

FBU Control branch chair Emma Turnidge told Socialist Worker, “The response makes us even stronger—we have got the strength to do this.”

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