*Brian Rudd, Mark Hayes, David Coote, Mitch Nevin. Photograph: John Mangan.
CLARE’S FIRE SERVICE is facing a potential shutdown as retained firefighters threaten an all-out strike from Tuesday.
Rolling closures of fire stations in the county has been implemented as retained firefighters seek better working and pay conditions.
A dispute is currently burning between retained firefighters represented by SIPTU and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) over demands for improved pay and conditions.
Members of the retained service are part-time firefighters who are paid an annual retainer to be available for call-outs. SIPTU represents around 2,000 retained firefighters across 200 stations around the country. The union said there is a recruitment and retention crisis in the service meaning that many firefighters are unable to take their leave entitlements due to staff shortages. They have also seen their incomes drastically reduced due to reductions in call outs over the last number of years.
As part of the strike action, fire stations in Ennis, Killaloe and Kilrush closed on Tuesday and Wednesday while stations in Ennistymon and Shannon will be shut on Thursday.
Presently, the majority of stations in the county are understaffed. Ennis has a crew of 16 comprised of fifteen firefighters and a full-time station officer, Shannon is supposed to have fifteen firefighters but only has seven, the Ennistymon crew is due to be at ten but remains at seven.
Speaking to The Clare Echo, Ennis native Mark Hayes, a retained firefighter explained that they have been flagging issues for the past four years. “It is getting harder and harder, because we have to live within the 1.5 miles of the station it is hard for lads to get work, some of the lads have got full-time jobs but they had them before they started with the fire service and their employers are nice enough to let them go, some lads have got jobs within the Council and have been told they have to pick either the Fire Brigade or the Civil Defence, unfortunately that is the way it was.
“The main issue is the work balance, better structured time off, filling stations with proper crew manning levels which is all down at the moment, management have tried, they are dealing with the LGMA and the Government who don’t seem to want to play ball. We’ve given them every opportunity that we can, it is going on for the last four years, we’ve given them as much time as we can but unfortunately it has come to this and we have to keep going at it”.
For the past nine years, Mark has been a retained firefighter in Ennis but it is getting increasingly difficult to retain and recruit people, he admitted. “If you’re looking for time off from the other job you’ve to come in here and see if there is time off at the station, sometimes that doesn’t work, some of the lads have good employers that will allow them to come to the station, you are on call 24/7, a pager could go off at any moment, you could be gone five minutes or two to three days with some of the calls, thankfully it is not as bad anymore. We get a retainer, starting off it would be €8,000 for any new firefighter coming in, that is what you are guaranteed but you can get callouts and different training. We joined the service to help people but it is getting harder and harder”.
He added, “It is hard to get people to join the Fire Service now, it used to be a rewarding job, it still is but it is hard for people to get the time off, when they come in they think it is week on week off but then they realise that’s not the case, we put a lot of training into them and they go off to other jobs with better time off and life structure”.
Payment increases in increments he explained, “it goes zero to two, two to five, five to seven, it only goes up €1000 here and there but the most you would make out of it would be €1000 for a retainer which is nothing when you’re on call 24/7. In Ennis, we have a minimum turnout of nine, we have to have nine on at any one time and six allowed off, that is between fifteen of us, if you do have something that is coming up you have to plan it well in advance, we will always try to accommodate each other and help each other out but there’s times when you go to the book to try get away for something important and you can’t”.
“We want the retainer to be upped or doubled for the firefighters, better structured time off, there is talks of all stations moving up to twelve so that it would be six on and six off which would work for a lot of lads and you’d know two weeks in advance that you were off next week, they are also allowing on your week off that you could show up to calls if needs be. Some of the stations could go four to six weeks without a call and if you take a few hours off and you miss a call then you’re not getting paid. The pay balance needs to be sorted,” Mark said.
While picketing outside the fire station in Ennis and walking in front of Clare County Council’s headquarters, members of the public beep their car horns as a sign of support for the county’s firefighters. “People are good, they understand what we have to do and that it is a hard job to do, it is tough, it’s the same as the Gardaí and paramedics, we go out and see certain things that most people wouldn’t, we deal with it and it is structured time off which is the big thing for lads, a lot of lads have missed out on stuff with their kids, it’s not fair on families. We want to do the job, ask any of the lads, they love the job itself, we just want a better structured time off. Even going for a mortgage for a house now, if you go into the bank and say I can guarantee you €8,000 to €12,000 a year they won’t entertain that and you’re trying to find a house within 1.5 miles of the station, it’s next to near impossible at the moment so it’s tough on lads, there’s no incentive for people to join,” Hayes noted.
In a statement to the Dáil on Tuesday evening, Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien (FF) said he was committed to ensuring that the retainer payment received by part-time firefighters will be positively dealt with in the upcoming public sector pay talks.
SIPTU described the response as nowhere near good enough and said that it has made resolution of the dispute more difficult.