fire brigades union fights regionalisation


Plans to centralise Emergency Fire Controls by creating a single regional organisation are being fought by East Anglia Region of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). The proposal originated with arch-regionaliser John Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). Prescott wants to force local fire authorities to shut down the existing 49 national control rooms and create nine regional control centres. Huge regions like Scotland and the South West could be left with one centre each.

At present control rooms are handled by specially trained, highly professional staff with local knowledge, who also carry out the administration of the local fire service and make fire reports. They belong to one trade union with firefighters - the FBU. Prescott's proposals are to replace them with a call handling service - a call centre. In an emergency members of the public ringing in will have to press a series of buttons in response to a recorded voice - for instance, press 2 for "road traffic accident" then 1 for "persons trapped". In Norfolk this would mean the 25 workers presently employed at Norfolk Control would either move to a central East Anglia control room, or lose their jobs. The estimated cost of the change is £110 million - at a time when there is talk of reducing the number of tenders available.

A local FBU member speaking to Workers at the Burston festival says there is no organisational or even economic rationale to this move. A Best Value review in 2000 concluded the present system is the best. Local Control Rooms provide flexibility, local knowledge and back-up, giving a high level of "resilience" to the system in case of a failure, large incidents or extremely busy periods.

The New York emergency services are strengthening their local structures, after the 11 September knocked out the big control room under the twin towers, and local services had to handle the ensuing mayhem. The failure of the centralised National Air Traffic Service earlier this year showed similar dangers that controllers had warned against.

Present arrangements also enable local fire service workers to meet with management locally to iron out problems, says the FBU member. Regionalisation would remove local control and accountability. She feels the ODPM "haven't a clue about the fire service" - having to make lightning visits to control rooms to find out how they work. She believes the real logic of the plans is the drive to regional government being forced through by the EU. Both moves are coming from Prescott's office. It's the same old story - break up the system, centralise locally accountable bodies into remote regional bodies much more easily controlled from Brussels.

The government's desire to break the FBU was clear in local and regional government minister Nick Raynsford's attempt to scupper their pay agreement by packing the August ratification meeting with London Labour councillors (who had never attended before) to vote against the deal.

Christina Jebb, who chaired the employers' negotiating team until she was removed for voting in favour of the deal, said on Radio 4's Today programme on 5 August, "They don't want a settlement." Asked why, she replied, "If the Fire Authorities can be shown to - in [the government's] eyes - not be able to manage the Fire Service, the obvious solution is regionalisation or perhaps even nationalisation of the Fire Service." David Blunkett is now talking about a national police force, controlled from the centre.

In Norfolk, the proposals are meeting resistance. The campaign mounted by the FBU has won the support of the fire authority in Hampshire and Dorset, and the county council in Berkshire. To find out more or support the campaign, look at their website on