Firefighters' union hits out against 'gagging order' on future job losses
Firefighters in Devon and Somerset have been issued with a “gagging order” to prevent them speaking publicly about proposed cuts to the fire service, union officials claim.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) says its members are “petrified” to publicise their concerns over proposals to shed 150 jobs and scale down three stations to part-time working.
The fire service, which insists “lines of communication are open”, says the measures are in response to an unprecedented grant cut of £5.5 million, or 17%, over two years, the third worst deal dealt out by the government in the recent grant settlement.
Angry FBU officials say two recent documents issued to staff – Media Guidelines and Expectations of Employees During Consultation – would not allow staff to display union stickers in their cars or appear pictured in uniforms on campaign leaflets.
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FBU chairman Bob Walker said: “They have never gone this far before in terms of an absolute gagging order – people are petrified to speak out.
“If they could they would be saying that if we remove six fire engines from being immediately available then response times get slower, fires get bigger before we can attend and there is a risk to life.”
Last month, councillors at Devon and Somerset Fire Authority approved a 1.99% council tax rise to plug the growing funding gap.
A plan to meet further funding cuts by scaling back the largest fleet of fire engines outside London by ushering in a new “light response pump” is currently under consultation.
In addition to potentially sending its debt spiralling from £4.6 million to £36 million, the plans would see three of Plymouth’s seven crews go from “whole-time” working to “on-call”, as well as one crew in Taunton, one in Torquay and another in Ilfracombe. The chief fire officer and the authority chairman say there will be no compulsory redundancies, no fire stations closed and no drop in public safety.
Anger over the cuts intensified when Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service (DSFRS) management distributed the controversial media guidance documents.
The guidelines say firefighters should not share personal opinions about the proposals as it is not in their remit and could result in disciplinary action.
They are also warned not to make any comment about Fire Authority reports or decisions, changes to service provision or working practices, funding, the council tax precept or political issues, including on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.
They also state that any publicity material surrounding the proposals must not be displayed at fire stations.
Assistant chief fire officer Pete Smith said there were no restrictions on staff telling senior managers their opinions.
However, he added: “When a member of staff uses a sensitive incident to press their personal opinion it may be viewed as that of the service and cause unnecessary anxiety in the community.”