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  • Senator Sharon Keogan

Senator Sharon Keogan — Retained Firefighters

On Tuesday, Senators Gallagher and O’Donovan spoke on the issue of the pay of whole-time retained firefighters, pointing out that negotiations with the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, have broken down and that strike action has been served on the relevant parties. We heard about how a whole-time retained firefighter earns approximately €700 per month which equates to 99 cent per hour. They must be on call 24-7, 360 days a year. They must stay within 3 km of the station at all times, attend the station within five minutes of a call and attend eight weeks of compulsory training in their first year in order to qualify as a firefighter. We can all understand why strike action is being taken over the abysmal level of pay.

On Tuesday, the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, responded that, “Should a period of industrial action commence on 6 June, local authorities will put in place appropriate contingency measures to ensure the ongoing provision of essential services is maintained.” I have been contacted by multiple councillors in Tipperary, Galway and Meath off the back of that response. They do not know how that is going to work or whether it is going to be possible. Many simply cannot see how the councils will be able to ensure the uninterrupted provision of firefighting services without their local retained firefighters. What will happen if, God forbid, there is another Creeslough? What will happen if there is a big industrial fire? Who will be expected to step up?

There is another aspect to this that compounds the problem in what may be a very dangerous matter. The local authority water workers are planning to go on strike as well, so there will be fewer firefighters and, if there is a major water leak in a town or a burst pipe, no one will be there to fix it. We will, therefore, have no water either. That sounds like the perfect storm just waiting to happen. One glance at the Irish Water map shows water outages all over the country. We would not have time to list them here this morning. On 7 and 8 June, and on a rolling basis after that, the local authority water workers will not be there to fix them.

Will the Minister of State please take that into account as he outlines how the Department will make sure that local authorities are able to continue their service this month and ensure they are fully equipped and prepared to handle whatever accidents may occur in these areas?

Deputy Martin Heydon:

I would like to start by thanking Senator Keogan for raising what is a very important issue. It is important we discuss this in advance of any potential action. The provision of a fire service in its functional area, as the Senator will be aware, including the establishment and maintenance of a fire brigade, the assessment of fire cover needs and the provision of fire station premises, is a statutory function of individual fire authorities under the Fire Service Acts 1981 and 2003. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage supports fire authorities by establishing policy, setting national standards for fire safety and fire service provision, providing a central training programme, issuing guidance on operational and other matters and providing capital funding for priority infrastructural projects and the procurement of essential front-line fire appliances and equipment.

Under the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003, 31 local authorities provide fire prevention and fire protection services for communities through 27 service delivery structures. Local authority fire services are delivered by approximately 3,300 local authority staff engaged at 217 fire stations nationwide, with 16 of these stations being staffed by full-time firefighters, a further four are a mix of full-time and retained, and 197 are staffed solely by retained firefighters.

The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is aware of the challenges associated with the recruitment and retention of retained fire personnel experienced by some local authorities. That is the reason the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, directed the management board of the national directorate for fire and emergency management, NDFEM, to review the delivery and sustainability of the local authority retained fire services, with particular emphasis on the recruitment and retention of staff. That review was published in December 2022 and is entitled, Retained Fire Services in Ireland - A Review of Recruitment and Retention and the Future Sustainability of Service Delivery.

Following the dissolution of discussions at an independently chaired facilitation forum on priority industrial relations issues identified in the report, SIPTU has notified all local authority chief executives that retained firefighters intend to begin industrial action from 6 June, with phased weekly escalations of actions to follow on 13 June and 20 June.

In preparation for proposed industrial action, officials from the national directorate for fire and emergency management in the Minister's Department, working closely with the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA and chief fire officers, have prepared a guidance document for local authorities. This is based on the provisions of the 1992 code of practice, SI 1 of 1992, the Industrial Relations Act, 1990, Code of Practice on Dispute Procedures (Declaration) Order 1992, to ensure a consistent approach to managing the consequences of industrial action in the retained fire services through establishing effective contingency arrangements to ensure a fire service response, proactively ensuring the health, safety and well-being of staff, and protecting communities to the maximum extent possible during the dispute.

The guidance aims to provide a consistent approach to planning for the contingency provision of emergency fire cover by local authorities for the duration of the industrial action period. To this end, senior fire service management is meeting with local SIPTU representative committees in each local authority to establish agreed local contingency measures. SIPTU has confirmed, in response to the LGMA, that the provisions of the 1992 code of practice on dispute procedures, including essential services, enabling co-operation and contingency planning and the continued provision of essential services, will be adhered to by all SIPTU members during the course of this dispute.

The following principles have been agreed with SIPTU and should be implemented for the duration of the dispute by staff and management: public safety will be safeguarded by staff and management at all times during the dispute as a top priority; there will be no compromise in the fire service health and safety measures; and, given these constraints, management will engage locally to enable firefighters to take industrial action, recognising non-engagement in work that is not urgent or essential for the duration of this dispute. In addition, a national fire safety awareness campaign will run over traditional and social media for the duration of the proposed industrial action to reinforce home fire safety messaging.

Senator Sharon Keogan:

To be quite honest, that is a copy and paste from what we heard the other day. The only line that is new in the reply is, "To this end, senior fire service management is meeting with local SIPTU representative committees in each local authority to establish agreed local contingency measures." They are the measures I asked about. I want to know what those measures are. Communities and businesses want to know what those contingency measures are.

I refer to what happened in Blanchardstown at the weekend. What will happen if our fire service is not on the ground? The Minister of State does not know what is going to happen. What happens if there is no water? It appears one arm of the State does not know what the other arm in local government is doing. We will have no people working in our water services in local authorities next week. Firefighters will be out at the same time. It does not make sense that there is no joined-up thinking on this particular issue. It is a catastrophe waiting to happen. I am disappointed by the answer I have received. Nobody has addressed the fact that water services in local authorities are going on strike next week.

Schools are holding leaving certificate examinations next week and hospitals will also be affected. All of the everyday things we need in our communities will be affected. On the Uisce Éireann website yesterday, reference is made to these issues running into next week. They will not go away. In all fairness, the reply is a cop-out. We need to look after our firefighters. The Uisce Éireann issue needs to be addressed within our local authorities and the staff need to be looked after.

Deputy Martin Heydon:

The Senator might not have heard my initial response and taken all of it fully on board. The key element is that SIPTU has confirmed it will adhere to the 1992 Act. We have a responsibility not to scaremonger. Public safety will be safeguarded by staff and management at all times. The Senator referenced Blanchardstown. If I were a member of the public looking at this debate, I would think no member of the fire service is going to go to a fire incident like that.

SIPTU has committed to that, in line with the 1992 Act, and we should not stand up in this House and allude to people that if there is a fire emergency, the fire service will not attend. I will get to my point about the retained fire service. I deal with the retained fire service in Kildare and know how it needs to be treated better. However, let us not scaremonger in the House and try to tell people that if there is a serious fire incident, the good men and women of the fire service will not respond because, through their representative body, they have committed to doing so.

What is clear from the findings of the retained review report is that the work-life balance of retained firefighters need to be addressed. I absolutely accept that, as does the Government. Work is under way through agreed structures to begin implementing the recommendations set out in the report to ensure the sustainability of the retained fire service as an attractive employment option. I do not doubt how hard it was for retained firefighters to make the decision to seek industrial action. We respect that it will do that and recognise that the non-emergency element will not be dealt with during the dispute period. During the most recent discussions between management and SIPTU, substantial progress was made in addressing the work-life balance concerns of retained firefighters, as acknowledged by SIPTU.

A positive conclusion of the process to the satisfaction of all parties has not been possible to date. However, management remains available to recommence discussions with a view to resolving outstanding industrial relations matters. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, encourages all parties to use the agreed industrial relations processes set out in the Building Momentum pay agreement to bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion as soon as possible.

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