Emergency 999 control operators have escalated strike action, to commence this week, up to eight days as Essex fire chiefs continue to ignore cost-neutral alternatives that could avert the industrial action. Not only will this be the longest strike to date but all the strikers are likely to be women.
The professional control operators will walk out at 07:00 on Tuesday 10 March and not return until 07:00 on Wednesday 18 March. A new imposed shift system has seen some emergency control operators having to leave their jobs or drastically reduce their hours and pay, with many more considering their future with the Service.
Riccardo la Torre, chair of the FBU in Essex, said: “Essex County Fire and Rescue Service like to portray themselves as a modern employer. However here they are forcing professional women out of their jobs and making life intolerable for many of those who remain.
“The vast majority of the control operators are women, many with young families and caring responsibilities. They have professional careers that they need to balance with their family lives.
“These shift changes are unfair and completely unnecessary as there are alternatives on the table that cost the same but would be more manageable for all those working in the control room today and in the future. It’s time the fire authority listened to their control staff properly and for common-sense to prevail.”
Jo Byrne, who represents control operators throughout the UK on the FBU executive council, said: “Despite the willingness of Essex control staff to accept compromise, Essex fire service management have just forged ahead and imposed the shift changes anyway.
“We celebrated International Women’s Day this past Sunday. These shifts disproportionately affect women with young families, and a number of our members have been forced to leave the service, whilst others have had no choice other than to reduce their hours and pay to fit in with available childcare.
“It’s not lost on anyone that the decision to impose the unworkable shift system into the Essex control room was taken by a senior management team consisting predominantly of middle-aged men who have no intention of working the shift system themselves.”
Serious concerns have also been raised about the numerous IT failures and complete breakdowns in the new mobilising system resulting in control staff having to take details of emergencies on pen and paper in order to despatch fire engines.
Essex control operators have been providing personal accounts to the FBU about how their lives have been affected by the shift change and technical faults with the new operating system.
Control operator 1:
“The original shift pattern that I worked would mean I would leave my house at 08:00 to go to work and drop my two children off en route making it into work for 08:45 ready for my second day shift.
“On the new shift pattern my childcare goes from one morning a week to the following:
“On my first day shift my husband will have to drop my two children off at a child-minder for 18:30 in order for him to get to work, I won’t be able to pick them up until 19:45 and that is as long as I leave on time and that there are no delays.
“My second day shift, as my husband doesn’t finish until 09:00, I will have to get my children up at 05:00 in the morning in order to get them ready for school, and drop them off at 06:00 in order for me to get to work for 07:00.
“I then have it again that evening where they are dropped off at 18:30 and I can’t pick them up until 19:45.
“My young children are now having two late nights and one really early morning in order for me to go to work.
“I’m going from one morning a week with a sociable time where I am dropping them off to this. The cost of childcare at these times is astronomical let alone a worry on their education and well-being.
“I am extremely worried about this.”
Control operator 2:
“I’ve got enough experience in my job to know that the new mobilising system is not fit for purpose, the system was promised by senior managers to cut down on work by around 30% (one of the reasons for the job losses) all I’ve seen so far is the workload and stresses on staff increase by over 30%.
“I’ve seen the ‘state of the art’ computer system work so slow that the operator has to write down the information on a note pad and input details later when the computer finally catches up – it’s so unreliable that any information we put in is double checked and scrutinised before being able to mobilise any appliances with confidence.
“Control is made up of a group of professional, hardworking, knowledgeable and experienced people who are keeping things together through their sheer determination and dedication under extremely difficult circumstances, the system has proved it is incapable of working properly from day one and we have seen little signs of improvement to date.”