Analysis: Firefighters' dispute on a collision course

As the Government prepares to handle the PR fallout from the UK's first national firefighters' strike since 1977, both sides are ratcheting up the media pressure, says Joe Lepper

Analysis: Firefighters' dispute on a collision course

The meeting this week of the Government's rarely convened national emergency committee - last called to tackle foot-and-mouth and 11 September - showed the overwhelming effect the planned national firefighter strikes will have.

This premise of massive disruption and the threat to public safety is undoubtedly gaining the headlines to the pleasure, albeit for different reasons, of both the main protagonists -- the Office of the Deputy Prime Minster and the Fire Brigades Union.

The ODPM's message since the strike action was called for at 4.30pm last Friday has been clear and consistent: the strike is unnecessary and could cost lives. Much better to cancel the strikes and await the decision of the Government's independent review into firefighters' pay, argues local government minister Nick Raynsford, the main spokesman on the issue.

Meanwhile the FBU's core message is to show just how far-reaching firefighters' responsibilities have become since the last national strike in 1977. The independent review, the FBU argues, is a fudge, and regarding the threat to public safety the finger must point to the Government. This was the point made consistently by FBU general-secretary Andy Gilchrist in a full-page interview in The Guardian on Monday.

John McGhee, one of five FBU national media officers dealing with the matter, says that even if a major incident occurs on a strike day and lives are lost, the message that its members have a right to strike over a fairer pay deal will not change.

'We have already given more than the required notice,' he says, adding that FBU members will give further assistance to the government regarding contingency plans and public safety.

But if lives are lost the backlash could be immense, especially as the amount of the pay rise - 40 per cent - is already gaining criticism among media outlets.

The Sun's editorial on Monday, while praising the 'brave men and women' of the service, believes that: 'going on strike in pursuit of crazy awards is going to be a pointless and painful waste of time'.

David Turner, chief fire officer at Essex, while anxious to avoid taking sides, concedes that: 'The next few weeks will be very damaging to the reputation of firefighters.'

By coincidence, later this week Turner is hosting a seminar of fire service press officers, which he hopes will lead to the setting up of the first national association for fire service press officers, provisionally called FirePRO.

Potential long-term damage to firefighters' reputation will undoubtedly be a key issue at the meeting, at which PROs in the sector will hear from public sector communicators including Marina Pirotta, MD of agency MPC and Sue Nicholson, chair of the Association of Police Public Relations Officers.

Given the clear need to improve local level PR efforts, it comes as a surprise that many brigades have acted far more swiftly than the Government in terms of handling PR surrounding the strike.

The Government did set up a Fire Communications Centre based in the ODPM as soon as the strike action was confirmed last Friday.

But according to an insider just one PRO was seconded to the centre.

The team had grown to two by Saturday, despite the story being splashed across many national newspapers and heading broadcast bulletins.

It wasn't until this Monday that the team had been beefed up to six PROs.

The insider admitted that until Monday, 'we weren't coping'.

By way of contrast, Kent Fire Brigade (KFB) started its PR efforts on the issue 15 weeks ago, giving early warning of possible strike action and urging schools, universities and businesses - particularly those working with chemicals such as locally based drug firms AstraZeneca and Pfizer - to prepare early. Essex also started its safety campaigning weeks ago.

According to KFB head of media and communications Suzi Christie, history shows this long-term approach works, as in 1977 advanced fire safety campaigning led to a significant drop in incidents on strike days.

She added that it has also been important that the brigade keeps staff aware of the issues without taking sides.

For the non-striking Retained Firefighters Union, created in 1977 by those unwilling to strike, the last national action also shows that this latest war of words could last well beyond any settlement.

Tristan Ashby, the RFU's only national PRO, says: 'There was ill-feeling from then that is still around. It was divisive and while we disagree with strike action all firefighters should be aware that when this is over we must all work together. That is a message that the media doesn't seem to want to know, all they want is two people slagging each other off.'

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