Wednesday, 26 May 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Gilmore: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for permitting me to raise the threatened strike by firefighters in Dublin and throughout the country. I understand the Labour Court intervened in the dispute today and that discussions are now scheduled. I hope those discussions will lead to a resolution of the dispute, and I welcome the intervention of the Labour Court.
 We tend to take the fire services for granted until we need them. Firefighters risk their lives every day on our behalf dealing with big and small fires, chemical spills, rescuing people, accidents and cleaning up the aftermath. A good fire service is an essential element in providing safety and security for our people. Over the years, people have become much more conscious of the dangers of fires. Modern society brings its own hazards – fuel storage depots, chemical factories, high rise buildings, underground car parks and many others.
The firefighters in Dublin have served strike notice and firefighters throughout the country have indicated support for their Dublin colleagues. The threatened withdrawal of fire services is a serious development with potentially disastrous consequences. The fire services depend on the training and skills of firefighters, skills that are not easily acquired. Even with the best will in the world, there is no adequate substitute for the skill and expertise of the fire services. No organisation can provide the same degree of security or cover. In the best of times and with the best will in the world, the Defence Forces simply do not have the personnel or the number of tenders to provide the level of cover required in a modern, busy city.
I do not want to go into the details of the dispute but it is well known that it involves a claim arising from the pay relationship between gardaí and firefighters which spans more than 30 years. However, there are other issues involved, specifically proposals by Dublin Corporation to reduce the number of appliances and personnel available to respond to incidents. I understand, for instance, that the corporation intends to reduce manpower in all single pump fire stations such as Tallaght, Rathfarnham, Finglas, Blanchardstown and Kilbarrack, while also reducing the number of staff on special aerial appliances. There is also a proposal to move one of the fire appliances from Donnybrook to Tallaght. I am concerned about this from the perspective of service to the public. Ten years ago a study of the Dublin fire service indicated that, compared with similar cities, it was under-resourced in equipment and personnel. Therefore, it is disturbing to hear proposals about the further reduction in personnel in the Dublin fire service, given the phenomenal growth of the city in the past ten years and the future anticipated growth.
It is also disturbing to hear of the transfer of appliances from one station to another – robbing Peter to pay Paul. Transferring the appliance from Donnybrook to Tallaght would leave Donnybrook with just one appliance. This is an area of high population with many institutions – hospitals, universities, the RDS, where major public events take place, and Lansdowne Road. There are also a huge number of residences, hotels and various places where public events take place.
I do not wish to get into the detail of the matters in dispute between the union and manage ment. However, in the public interest, the Minister should give some attention to what is happening and ensure that the standard of service and the equipment and personnel required to provide a safe fire service for the people is not diminished by short-term productivity measures which may comply with some pay agreement, but which may undermine the quality and safety of the Dublin fire service.
Mr. M. Smith: I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. My colleague the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, is unable to be in the House and asked me to clarify the position and to correct a number of inaccuracies which are being reported on his behalf.
On Wednesday, 19 May, the Department of the Environment and Local Government was informed by Dublin Corporation that strike notice had been served on it by the fire brigade unions and that notice was due to expire on 3 June. The corporation requested that arrangements be made to secure the assistance of the Defence Forces to provide emergency cover for the duration of any strike. This request was immediately conveyed to the Department of Defence in accordance with long standing, established procedures. The initial request was conveyed by telephone and followed up formally in writing on Friday, 21 May. The House will also be aware that, over the past few days, other full-time brigades also decided to take strike action in support of their Dublin colleagues.
As regards alternative fire cover, the Minister is satisfied that the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces responded promptly to the request for assistance and that the Defence Forces are co-operating fully. The Department of the Environment and Local Government is liaising closely with the Defence Forces and other Departments and agencies with a view to ensuring the maximum possible emergency fire cover in the event of strike action.
While the Defence Forces will provide the best possible cover in the circumstances, it would be unreasonable to expect that they could provide the same level of service as the full-time brigades – Dublin alone has almost 800 fully trained fire fighters. In these circumstances, there is an onus on the unions to act responsibly and ensure that any strike action does not contribute to loss of life or gross property damage.
As in previous disputes involving other essential services where life was at risk, it is hoped that the unions would agree an appropriate protocol to ensure that, in the event of strike action, personnel are available to respond in any emergencies.
In relation to the strike action itself, it is important not to prejudice any possible talks. However, it is essential to clarify one issue. The unions balloted their members on the issue of parity with the Garda Síochána. However, parity  is not an issue – it is agreed and there is no need for this strike.
The Minister hopes this issue can be resolved through discussion without strike action. The chairman of the Labour Court, Mr. Finbarr Flood, has today invited both sides to discussions with a view to finding a resolution and these talks are scheduled to take place next Monday.
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