Devon fire crews 'gagged' over planned cuts
CITY firefighters have been issued with a "gagging order" to prevent them speaking publicly about proposed cuts to the fire service, union officials claim.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) says its members are "petrified" to publicise their concerns over proposals to shed 150 jobs and scale down three stations to part-time working.
Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service, which insists "lines of communication are open", says the measures are in response to an unprecedented grant cut of £5.5million.
The 17 per cent cut, over two years, is the third-worst deal dealt out by the Government in its recent grant settlement.
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Leading FBU officials are angry and say two recent documents issued to staff – Media Guidelines and Expectations of Employees During Consultation – would not allow staff to display union stickers in their cars or appear pictured in uniforms on campaign leaflets.
FBU chairman Bob Walker said: "They have never gone this far before in terms of an absolute gagging order – people are petrified to speak out.
"If they could they would be saying that if we remove six fire engines from being immediately available then response times get slower, fires get bigger before we can attend and there is a risk to life."
As reported in The Herald last month, councillors at Devon and Somerset Fire Authority have approved a 1.99 per cent council tax rise to plug the multi-million-pound funding gap.
The Government cuts could see the service's debt spiral from £4.6million to £36million in five years, it has been warned.
The plans would also see three of Plymouth's seven crews go from "whole-time" working to "on-call".
The chief fire officer and the authority chairman say there will be no compulsory redundancies, no fire stations closed and no drop in public safety.
But the FBU has serious concerns and could submit its official response to the plan later this week.
Anger over the cuts intensified when fire service managers distributed the controversial media guidance documents.
The guidelines say firefighters should not share personal opinions about the proposals as it is not in their remit and could result in disciplinary action.
They are also warned not to make any comment about Fire Authority reports or decisions, changes to service provision or working practices, funding, the council tax precept or political issues, including on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.
They also state that any publicity material surrounding the proposals must not be displayed at fire stations.
Assistant chief fire officer Pete Smith said there were no restrictions on staff telling senior managers their opinions.
But he added: "When a member of staff uses a sensitive incident to press their personal opinion it may be viewed as that of the service and cause unnecessary anxiety in the community."