The Fire Brigades Union has called on the government to immediately drop proposed unworkable changes to firefighters’ pension schemes after an academic report on firefighter fitness backed up the concerns firefighters have been raising for three years.
The majority of brigades measure firefighter fitness using a safety-related level of aerobic fitness. The report argues that “firefighters with an aerobic capacity below an occupational fitness standard of 42.3 ml.kg-1.min-1 would not be guaranteed to be safe and effective in their ability to complete necessary roles within their occupation”.
However, when defending their proposed changes to firefighters’ pensions, the government has repeatedly argued that those below this standard are fit enough to work, meaning those above 55, who frequently do not meet the standard, can continue to be expected to work until 60.
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “It seems that central government doesn’t give a damn about the safety of firefighters. They are willing to risk the lives and safety of firefighters and the public simply to drive through their attacks on our pensions.
“This report delivers another nail in the coffin for the entirely-discredited arguments behind the government’s robbery of our pensions.
“As we have repeatedly demonstrated in three year’s of negotiations with government, all the evidence shows that their pension changes are simply unworkable and take no account of the real work firefighters do or the standards they need to meet to do that work safely.
“These fitness standards are not just about protecting individual firefighters.
“If one member of a firefighting crew is at risk then the entire crew is also at risk, as is any member of the public involved in the fire or other emergency incident.
“This is about being able to undertake work in hazardous situations safely, professionally and effectively.
“It’s time for the government to stop putting politics ahead of public safety and work with firefighters to create a pension scheme that reflects the uniquely demanding role that we undertake.”
Under the government’s proposals, firefighters who are forced to retire before the age of 60 as a result of ageing will have half of their pension taken away. The alternative they face is to be sacked.
The government’s own report, published in December 2013 by Dr Tony Williams, found that 66% of people between the ages of 55 and 60 would be unlikely to meet the fitness standard used by most fire services and would therefore be unlikely to be able to achieve the new normal pension age of 60.
The government has suggested that this problem would be resolved by adopting lower standards, arguing that instead of adopting the current recommended safe standard of 42 VO2 this should be dropped to 35.
However, the FBU says the new report, Enhancing the health, fitness and performance of UK firefighters, shows the extreme risks to firefighters and the public associated with any such lowering of fitness standards to force through pension changes, which would put more firefighters at risk of heart attacks and sudden death — particularly attending or returning from emergency incidents.
The report says: “A fitness standard should not be based on the fitness of those currently employed, but simply on the demands of the task itself.”