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Latheron, Lybster & Clyth Community Council
Fire Action Group

6 May 05
Is Caithness Witnessing The End Of Lybster Fire Unit?

Marshall Bowman On Behalf Of Community Council Praises Convenor David Flear's Last Ditch Attempt To Allow The Local Unit To Continue Saving Lives In Fires

I fear this may be the last communication on the fire issue as the morale is rock bottom in the local crew and they are seeing no light at the end of the tunnel. The Community Council at the meeting of 5/5/05 publicly expressed its full sympathy with their sentiments but would like them to try to continue to serve the community in the much diminished and downgraded role in the hope that in a year's time things might pick up if the retained station plans for Dunbeath don't fully materialise and that the promised RTA vehicle is put on station.

It is at this point that the Community Council put on record publicly its thanks to Councillor David Flear for his extremely well articulated, argued and forceful speech in favour of retaining the volunteer units at the Fire Board meeting in Shetland on the 14th April. He took on the mantle of spokesman as the local councillor was unable to attend. Councillors David Flear and Richard Durham representing Balintore and the Seaward villages were doughty fighters for the cause and the general public should be pleased that such people represent them in important local issues.

Basically the Highlands and Islands Fire Board at their monthly meeting held recently in Shetland voted to implement the IRMP as from April 1st with the volunteer units to be downgraded to RTAs (only for a few units), hill fires and community fire prevention education. Permission to attend chimney fires as recommended by the IRMP was not granted! This downgrading to a diminished active role takes effect from 1st June providing the volunteer members sign a contract. In effect this no longer makes them volunteers but employees. The meeting in Shetland on 14th April defeated narrowly the amendment from 11th March meeting which asked that a certain number of volunteer units be retained. There would seem to have been a big change of direction from some of the Fire Board councillors to vote in favour of the IRMP and all its associated flaws between the two meetings. There is a lot of ill feeling in a number of communities throughout the Highlands and Islands Brigade area with this decision as recent press coverage has shown.

The new retained contracts which are due to be issued today 5/5/05 must be signed within two weeks . There is to be no leeway on this matter, yet it has taken a review over two years to get its act together. If these men are to sign they need permission from their employers to be available. This can take up to six weeks to get through the system in larger employers such as Dounreay, BT, etc. If they don't sign they are out! No recognition is being given to this difficulty. Everything is now being steamrollered forward at an accelerated pace to meet deadlines that suit the Fire Brigade.

New work practices are to introduced under the new contracts.One of the new crazier work practices to be implemented concerns hill fires. Paddle beaters are to be no longer used. In their place crews are to use 5 gallon knapsack sprayers! Think of the initial weight this is to carry and what happens should someone trip and fall into a dubh lochan, as can easily happen in the smoke of a hill fire? Are they not now in danger with this on their back weighing them down? Not according to the Brigade who claim they are taking all these decisions because they are responsible employers. Where now is all the health and safety that keeps get thrown in the face of anyone who has the temerity to dispute any of the Brigade and Fire Board decisions?

At a meeting in Lybster last year and as reported in the John O'Groat Journal by Iain Grant at the time, the Chairman of the Fire Board, Drew Macfarlane Slack, stated that Lybster would be given a new vehicle for Road Traffic Accidents. It was to be the "Rolls Royce" of vehicles. This promised "Rolls Royce"(quoted publicly don't forget by the Chairman of Highland Council Fire Board) is to be nothing other than one built up from bits stripped off other vehicles and won't be on station for at least a year from now! All the promises on this issue have been broken. This has been typical of dealings with the Fire Brigade in general since this issue arose. Senior Officers have been asked many pertinent questions on these matters but just stonewall any replies by saying "The decision is made. Next question?"

Four figure sums of money are being paid to what were volunteer crew stations throughout the Brigade area to make sure they sign up for the new retained status. These are monies backdated for two years to anyone who is in a volunteer station trained and using BA, regardless of whether that individual actually has BA training or not! Not all members of crews trained in BA actually need to have this training. It is believed in some cases that individuals who have left the service are to be paid backdated pay for the year or so they qualify for! Suggest that there is an anomaly here and the Brigade just don't want to know. It doesn't suit them to be challenged on issues. The situation is now one of spending council tax payers money, in the eyes of many inappropriately, by the lord and masters in Brigade HQ and their compliant minions on the Fire Board, with the totally wrong emphasis on where it goes. We are dealing unfortunately with people who display the superior attitude of "We know best" and "One size fits all" with no recognition of local difficulties being publicly acknowledged.

Most of the local volunteer crews are not going to sign a contract which effectively makes them retained and demands 24/7 cover as they only want serve their community. Those that are being retained and paid handsomely, however are only asked for a maximum input of 120 hours per week. They don't want to sign and then be in the situation of having to attend a hill fire in Ardnamurchan in Argyll, refusing, then being disciplined for not attending. This is again another example of what all this new restructuring nonsense can lead to. It is feasible, under the new conditions, to be asked to attend any hill fire incident anywhere throughout the Highlands and Islands Brigade area from Ardnamurchan to Muckle Flugga.

Finally, speak to most firemen in the volunteer sector and quite a few in the retained stations throughout the Highlands and Islands and they tell you the morale in the Brigade has never been lower. Tells you something about the leadership and officers running the show.

As from 1st June Lybster Volunteer Fire Unit will no longer exist under that title and it will only be allowed to go to hill fires and do fire community education. They are at present no longer allowed to attend Road Traffic Accidents supposedly because they are not fully trained and it is too dangerous! What has all the training they have been doing for the last goodness knows how many years been for? Are the Fire Brigade admitting they are not executing correctly their responsibilities to these crews? If so then the Brigade has not been performing its duty to the public as well.

It will only be when a tragedy occurs in the community that maybe sense will prevail. By then, of course, it will be too late.