They are paid to keep us safe. But tomorrow thousands of firefighters are to walk out on strike for four hours in a row over reforms to their pension.
Today, firefighter Lee Wilson responds to criticism of the strike and explains why he is joining his colleagues in staying away from the fire station between midday and 4pm.
Changes outlined mean firefighters have to work until 60 before they can start drawing on their retirement pot, something firefighters say will put lives at risk due to the fitness levels required for the job. They will also be asked to contribute more towards their retirement.
But 28-year-old Mr Wilson, who has been with West Midlands Fire Service for five years and is based at Dudley fire station, said he saw ‘no option’ other than to strike.
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He will be joining 12,000 firefighters around the country for the industrial action.
Mr Wilson says: “I joined because I had a genuine desire to do something worthwhile and rewarding with my life. I take my responsibilities seriously. If these changes are imposed, I’ll face paying over 50 per cent more per month in contributions and will face the uncertainty of being sacked and losing my pension when age inevitably gets the better of me.
“But this is small compared to what a lot of my colleagues face. There are others who are affected much more than me; we need a normal voice, not an MP or a union leader. I can look at it both from within and objectively as I’m less affected than others.
“I pay taxes towards the fire service to protect my family and friends as well as myself, so I understand why people don’t want us to strike.”
Many firefighters are not speaking about going on strike, preferring to leave it to the Fire Brigades Union, but Mr Wilson says he thought the public should know more.
“I don’t want to strike”, he says. “But if you ask any firefighter we genuinely see no other option. The taxpaying public have been giving their opinions. I can understand why they may be angry and I thought they deserved answers.”
One of the comments Mr Wilson says has been made about the strike by the public is a suggestion that firefighters should just ‘get another job’ and that they should contribute more to their pension to ease the burden on the taxpayer.
But he believes firefighters are already doing their bit.
He says: “Our pension scheme is expensive. Thirteen per cent of our wages is a big chunk of money every month. We pay more so that we can therefore retire earlier, mainly due to the demands mentally and physically of the job we do.
“There are not any other jobs within the service. Due to huge budget cuts, back room and civilian staff have been cut back. The majority of uniformed backroom firefighters are now riding frontline appliances due to staffing shortages. If you’re a firefighter you’re on the front line.”
Another comment about the strike was that their wages should be docked and they they should be grateful for even having a job in the current climate. But Mr Wilson says: “It’s not an afternoon off. The strike is midday to 4pm. We don’t finish duty until 6pm and we will be returning to work. I’ll get no joy from not being able to respond. It’s a very stressful time, and I’ll be wishing my afternoon away.”
There are also those who say that the pension age is being increased for everyone else and that firefighters should be no different.
“We signed up to a career of risking our own lives to protect others”, says Mr Wilson. “We also signed our spouses, children, parents etc up to it. They wake in the middle of the night and wonder what danger we’re facing or whether we’re coming home.
“Do they not deserve a sound financial future too?
“There’s also the fact that while the pension age nationally has been raised by two years, from 65 to 67, firefighters face up to 10 years more, from 50 or 55 to 60. We think that’s disproportionate.”
Others have suggested that firefighters are only dealing with emergencies for part of the time and that they do not need to be dealing with fitting smoke alarms for the elderly.
“We don’t only deal with fires”, Mr Wilson says. “If you need rescuing from anything, floods, car crashes, chemical spills, fires, terrorist attacks, the list is not exhaustive, we will rescue you. We go towards the danger as others run away. To be experts in all of this takes a lot of training. A fire engine is packed full of equipment. We have to be experts on every piece of kit, and that knowledge must stay fresh. We train in great detail, even down to the science behind fire. This all takes time.
“We spend hours of our day educating the public. There are less fires, but this is mainly down to our hard work in prevention.”
If firefighters were paid only for the time they were responding to fires, would they be paid a low wage?
Mr Wilson says: “This strike has nothing to do with pay. It’s action against pension change, forcing old firefighters to work until they’re 60 with the risk of being sacked and losing all of their pension for failing fitness tests.
“We aren’t superhuman. And I don’t think £28,000 per year before deductions is a lot of money for risking our lives to help others.”
But what about second jobs? It's claimed that many have them because they can rest while at the station.
Mr Wilson says: “We work 48 hours per week. If we have too few firefighters, we’ll work more. Just because you see our car on the drive all day on a Wednesday, doesn’t mean we’re not working. We’re probably in between night shifts, or we’re working all weekend so our rest days are midweek. I don’t have a second job, that’s a generalisation. Doing a second job is a personal choice and shows the lengths that firefighters go to in order to make ends meet.”