Firefighters in Hertfordshire struck for eight hours on Friday of last week against plans by the county fire authority to “modernise” the service by closing two fire stations and axing up to 50 frontline firefighter posts.
The dispute between the fire authority and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is now set to escalate.
Firefighters across the county were set to walk out for 48 hours at 2pm on Wednesday of this week.
The cuts programme is being pushed through by Tory controlled Herts county council in the face of fierce opposition from both the FBU and local community groups. Firefighters say that Herts is being used as a testing ground for a wider assault on the service.
“All the other fire authorities have got their eye on this dispute,” says Peter Cargill, officer in charge at Radlett, one of the two stations threatened with closure.
“If our campaign falls through you’ll see cuts across all the 57 brigades in the country. They’ll think, ‘Herts managed to get away with it, so we can bully this through too’.”
Herts county council has so far refused to budge on its plans to cut £500,000 from its fire service budget by closing Radlett and Bovingdon stations and cutting firefighter posts from Hemel Hempstead, Stevenage, Watford and St Albans.
On Wednesday of last week firefighters rejected what they described as “non-proposals” from the employers – a deal that would only be formally offered if fire crews indicated that they would accept it.
“The latest fire authority threat is one of a series which have accompanied every proposal put to us by the fire authority,” said Tony Smith, vice-chair of Herts FBU.
“We are beginning to wonder whether the council’s tactics are part of a political agenda to deliberately inflame the dispute.”
Firefighters are bitter about the employers’ tactic of taking away fire appliances from the threatened stations during the period of the strike action.
Two engines were commandeered from Radlett and Bovingdon on Friday 19 May, the day before the first eight hour walkout by Herts FBU. This action had a direct impact on safety in the county, according to Peter Cargill.
“There was a serious road traffic accident on Friday that we couldn’t attend from Radlett because they’d taken our machine,” he told Socialist Worker.
“Fortunately no one was seriously injured, but it took ten minutes for another fire crew to reach the scene – we’d have taken four minutes.”
The employers took the two fire engines again on Thursday of last week. Firefighters at Radlett temporarily stopped them by locking the steering wheel of the appliance, but they came back later and cut through the lock and took the engine away.
Radlett and Bovingdon fire stations are both staffed by “retained” part time firefighters. They provide vital cover to areas of Hertfordshire criss-crossed by major roads such as the M1 and M25.
The Buncefield oil depot, which saw a major fire in December of last year, is also in the area covered by the threatened Bovingdon station. “We spent most of our lives at Buncefield in December,” says Jamie Fyfe, station commander at Bovingdon.
Firefighters from across Herts rallied outside Bovingdon station on Friday of last week during their strike action. They were joined by local community activists supporting their struggle against the cuts.
Local people are furious at the way the county council has ignored their views on why the stations should remain open, says Sharon Sims from the Bovingdon Action Group.
“Their reaction has just been, ‘We are right and everyone else is wrong’,” she told Socialist Worker. “They just want to go ahead with these cuts regardless of what people think.”
“This has nothing to do with the risk assessments or our safety – it’s just about money.”
Peter Cargill believes the impetus for the cuts programme is from the government. “This all came from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister,” he says.
“They say they want to ‘modernise’ the fire service – but that should mean making it safer, not cutting frontline firefighters and appliances.”