Acting Meath Union Rep Ciaran Finn said firefighters must have more of a work/life balance in order to recruit people into the profession and retain them.

Firefighters prepare for strike action

Firefighters across Meath are taking industrial action from Tuesday after negotiations to secure better terms and conditions broke down, with an all-out strike planned for two weeks later.

Under the first phase of their industrial action, firefighters are withdrawing from training and courses and will not use the radio system but will continue to turn out for calls.

A week later, this will escalate to half of stations across the country closing, while an all-out strike is planned from 20th June if a resolution is not found.

Firefighters are required to comply with a contingency plan to provide a minimum level of cover and details of what this will entail are still being thrashed out with council management.

Firefighters say they have been left with no choice but to take industrial action due to the crisis in recruiting and retaining staff because of the lack of work/life balance and the poor pay.

Acting Meath Union Rep Ciaran Finn, who is station officer in Ashbourne, explained that the retainer fee for new entrants is just €719 per month which works out at just 99c an hour for the cover they provide.

Firefighters get an hourly rate per call out on top of this, but Ciaran said this has been slipping and is now about 15 per cent below the national average wage.

"Every one of us is struggling with the thoughts of taking industrial action. However, if we don't take it, there will be no-one left to run the service. That's the truth of it. If we don't go out now and push for change, in a few years time you will have stations closing, even busy ones," said Ciaran.

"The last thing we want to do is strike because we all work in our communities. We go to incidents involving our friends and our neighbours and our family. It is not like the full time brigade where you go in and you know nobody and its all anonymous."

Meath Fire Service consists of seven fire stations in Navan, Ashbourne, Trim, Kells, Dunshaughlin, Nobber and Oldcastle, manned by 75 firefighters. All but one of those are employed on a retained basis, with only the station officer in Navan being a full time position.

For all other firefighters, they are on call 24/7 operating on a pager system and must live and work within 2.5km of the station. If they want to leave the area they can "sign off" provided the minimum manning level is met.

Difficulties in recruiting staff mean stations have had to operate in some cases at lower levels which makes it more difficult to sign off.

Because of the poor pay, particularly for those in quieter stations, most firefighters require a second job and to find personnel who can meet the requirements is becoming more and more difficult.

"We started out with 10 in 1999 and of that ten, seven are still with us. But in the 20 years, we have taken on another ten firefighters and all but nine have left us and the last one is considering their options. We have lost a huge amount of experience. Each time you take on someone new it takes about two years to get them fully up to speed," said Ciaran.

Their most recent recruitment campaign saw no applications in the first two rounds. On the third round, there were three applications and they were all offered the job but turned it down because the requirements were too demanding.

Finally on the fourth round, Ciaran said they got someone. Ashbourne has also lost around seven of their firefighters to the full time service in Dublin where firefighters can rely on guaranteed pay and set time off.

Because the retainer fee is the only guaranteed income and calls are not taken into account firefighters are also struggling to get mortgages and loans.

"The last agreement was in 1999 before we even opened and it was a bad agreement at the time. Time and time again we have been told there will be change but it hasn't happened," said Ciaran.

"People are holding on for waiting for this deal to go through and if we don't get it people will start leaving and when station numbers drop down below a certain level it becomes too difficult to run a station.

"We need some sort of package with a workable balance. I accept I am never going to do a 40 hour week but there has to be a workable balance."

Ciaran also pointed out that the fire service is in a unique position that if someone is sick they can't bring in someone to replace them as they don't live in the area and they can't take someone on temporarily. They also can't put off projects like other areas of the council and they can't reduce their workload. Each time they are down a person due to sickness or holidays, or if someone leaves, it becomes even more difficult for the rest of the crew to get time off.

"It is the same being on call in a station with 400 calls a year or 50. It is the same hassle being on call with no break.

"There were looking at upping manning levels to 12 during the negotiations but there was no funding to support that. The service is already struggling to get ten, how can we get 12 without improving the package?

"We can't go on 24/7. We need to officially get a certain amount of time off without taking a massive reduction in pay. There is no point in saying you can have half the time off but you are only getting half the pay. Those who are left would leave."

Ciaran said they have got good support from councillors who are bringing forward motions to support them and they are also meeting with TDs.

From Tuesday week, 50 per cent of stations will close and cover will be provided by the nearest neighbouring station. Ciaran said this was to try an impact as little as possible on the public. "It will take us a little longer but we will get someone there."

However from 20th June all out strike is planned and while contingencies will be put in place to provide a minimum level of cover, details of what this would involve have not yet been finalised.