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Firefighters on the picket in Longford Michael Farrell
THE MORNING LEAD

"Something has to change": Retained firefighters call for complete overhaul of service

Firefighters across Ireland have been striking to try and resolve critical issues within the service

RETAINED FIREFIGHTERS ACROSS the country have said they have “hardened resolve” to carry on their industrial action until pay, staffing, and recruitment issues in the service are resolved.

Over 2,000 firefighters are currently on strike.

Fire stations around the country have been operating at half capacity, with 50% stations closed and picketed at a time.

The service, which accounts for the majority of Ireland’s firefighters, has been facing a recruitment and retention crisis for a number of years, which has left stations nationwide critically understaffed. 

“Stations all over the country are short staffed with dangerously low levels of crewing on call out,” said Karan O Loughlin, SIPTU public administration division organiser when announcing the strike.

A hugely inefficient service

Retained firefighters, as the name suggests, receive a retainer every year, and are then paid for drills and call-outs to emergencies.

In quieter counties, the lack of call-outs means that it is impossible for firefighters to make ends meet on this retainer alone.

Michael Farrell, a firefighter based in Ballymahon, Co Longford, says that as their station is one of the quieter ones in the country, they can only expect 60-70 call-outs a year. This leaves those in the station needing to have second jobs.

For many this can be a difficult task. Farrell works for an engineering firm, and while he is able to maintain the job alongside his work for the fire service, he says if he were in a role that was more time-sensitive in the business’ day-to-day operations, things would be very different.

“If I were a machine operator, or something similar, I wouldn’t also be able to be a firefighter,” he says.

57cbf383-ec9f-4d02-89ab-156244a63be8 Michael Farrell Michael Farrell

While they were once able to operate a roster of one week on, one week off, the lack of staff has meant that has changed so firefighters are on call 24/7. This has serious implications for their quality of life, as they are also required to stay close to their station while on call.

Anthony Kirwan, based in Tullow, Co Carlow, says that this puts a huge burden on how his family navigate their timetables. 

“If there’s anything that needs to be done outside of town, with the kids or anything else, my wife has to do it,” he explains. 

“If she has to be out of town for any reason, I have to make sure that either my parents or my sister are on hand to look after the kids in case I get a call-out,” he says.

Recently, while two of his colleagues were on leave, the other five members of the station were unable to leave the town for three weeks.

There are guys that have been in my station for seven years who’ve never seen the place at full capacity.

In Longford, says Farrell, a minimum of 1o firefighters are needed to bring the county’s stations back to safe staffing levels. In Carlow, Kirwan says his station alone would need 12.

Stations are facing serious health and safety concerns as a result, and the potential for disaster is high, says Kirwan.

“It was a miracle that the fire in Wexford General Hospital wasn’t worse than it was. Had the fire happened at night for example, it could have been catastrophic.”

The issues that the service are facing today are not new.

At the annual Chief Fire Officers Association conference in 2018, then-chair, Dave Carroll said:

One of the biggest challenges we face is the state of our retained fire service and recruiting people within the service. It is challenging to balance the demands of being on call 24/7 with managing a life.”

If the issue then is a lack of staff, surely the solution is to simply get more?

“It’s chronic, and it’s only getting worse”

Recruitment has been an ongoing issue for the service, and is a problem that threatens its long-term viability.

“It’s chronic, and it’s only getting worse. Because you have to live and work so close to your station, it’s not an attractive career for many,” says Farrell.

No one is going to move to Ballymahon to work as a retained firefighter under the present conditions.”

Attracting young people into the service, who may want a life and career that doesn’t necessitate their living in a small town, is a huge challenge.

While the options for that kind of life are available in some of the bigger population centres, says Kirwan, you just can’t find it in small towns like Tullow.

The recent Labour Court recommendations, which suggested an increase of the retainer from 24% to 32.7%, was roundly rejected by over 80% of firefighters.

There are some aspects of the proposals that could be worked on, says Farrell.

However, recommendations like a return to a week on/week off roster require a level of staffing that no station can reasonably achieve at their current recruitment levels.

In the last four recruitment campaigns conducted in Carlow for instance, they have only been able to attract one recruit. Even if he is able to pass training and decides to stay with the service, he is merely going to replace a retiring firefighter.

The best case scenario, with the fire service the way that it is, says Antony, is that they will see the fire station in Tullow close in the next five to 10 years.

The loss of these local stations, leaving smaller areas to rely exclusively on crews farther away in larger population centres, will have serious consequences for the future.

At the coal face

While Ireland was spared the wildfires that tore through southern Europe last month, firefighters in Ireland are on the front lines dealing with the effects of climate change and the adverse weather conditions that come with it.

Siptu’s Karan O’Loughlin says that retained firefighters are at “the coal face” when it comes to confronting the consequences of climate change.

“While we have seen a reduction in building fires in recent years as fire safety in these areas increases, storms, flooding, and wildfires are becoming more frequent. The effects of climate change are something retained firefighters are intimately aware of and getting worse,” she says.

A factor hugely beneficial to management in how the strike has proceeded, says Kirwan, has been the fact that July was Ireland’s wettest on record. Last year, fires were a much more serious concern with the heat the country experienced.

The fires that they have been seeing have been exacerbated by the staffing crisis.

A fire on Mount Leinster for instance, with the logistics involved in fighting such a blaze, will often strip the surrounding stations of their crews, leaving their local areas vulnerable should other emergencies arise.

They can often find themselves responding to a fire like that multiple times in quick succession.

It’s not uncommon for lads to come back from a call like that, get things ready for the next one, and be just sitting down with their family for dinner when they get another call and have to go again

The sheer volume of call outs that need to be dealt with by so few, leave many physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.

Moving forward

As firefighters continue to man pickets across the country, the dispute shows no signs of ending.

Siptu has announced that following a meeting on 1 August, as a result of there being a “lack of political will” to resolve the dispute, the industrial action “will have to be escalated”.

“There is a window of opportunity now for engagement on a resolution before a serious level of escalation further entrenches positions,” said Brendan O’Brien, Siptu sector organiser.

The feeling on the ground is that neither the local or national government is listening, and so the resolve of those on the pickets has been hardened to “carry on a deliver for the service and the public”, says O’Loughlin.

The calls from firefighters include an overhaul of a system that is seen as massively inefficient.

“What people need to understand is that retained firefighters are in a very weak position. There isn’t a simple fix to the conditions that we’re facing, and it should be treated as so,” says Farrell.

The last thing that we wanted was for the dispute to escalate like it did, but we didn’t have any other choice. We live and work in communities that we serve, and we don’t want to let them down.

“But for there to be the cover there that they expect and deserve, then something has to change.”

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