FIREFIGHTERS across Wearside and Country Durham walked out in a row over pensions and raise retirement ages.
Members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) nationwide left their stations and set up picket lines, leaving brigades to put into place contingency plans for four hours yesterday afternoon.
Lee Graham is FBU representative at Sunderland Central fire station in Railway Row.
Expecting firefighters to carry out frontline duties until they hit 60 would put both them and members of the public at risk,” he said.
“We are being asked to work to 60 now – I am sure the public would not appreciate a 60-year-old firefighter crawling through their window.
“We already have an ageing workforce. I can’t see another recruitment course being held until 2017 at the earliest.
“They have suggested that redeployment may be possible for those not able physically to carry out frontline duties.
“But you can’t redeploy everybody. There are not enough backroom jobs to do that now and there are going to be even fewer by 2017.” Lee, 44, has been a firefighter for 12 years and says changes to the service’s pension system will hit him hard.
“We will have to work longer and pay more in order to receive less,” he said.
Andy Dodd is FBU representative at Durham City fire station, where almost 50 firefighters walked out.
“We have had good support from the public,” he said. “People have been hooting as they have gone past and we have had up to 26 people on the picket line, which is quite a good turn-out.”
Fire minister Brandon Lewis defended the Government’s stance.
He said: “The Government has listened to union concerns – firefighters will still get one of the most generous pension schemes in the public sector.
“A firefighter who earns £29,000, and retires after a full career aged 60, will get a £19,000-a-year pension, rising to £26,000 with the state pension.
“An equivalent private sector pension pot would be worth more than £500,000 and require firefighters to contribute twice as much.
“The firefighter pension age of 60 was introduced in 2006 and is in line with the police and armed forces.
“We have been clear with the Fire Brigades Union that our pension reforms are not introducing a national fitness standard. Firefighter fitness remains a local fire and rescue authority matter – Government is helping local employers and the union to work together on this issue.”
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack warned there may be more to come.
“This initial strike is a warning shot to Government,” he said. “It is ludicrous to expect firefighters to fight fires and rescue families in their late 50s. The lives of the general public and firefighters themselves will be endangered.”