Despite a larger than normal turnover of staff, the county’s chief fire officer believes that Clare’s part-time firefighting service is facing up to challenges that have been caused by an upturn in the economy.
Adrian Kelly was responding to a joint motion co-signed by six councillors regarding the sustainability of the retained firefighter model in Clare. The six, J. Flynn, G. Flynn, C. Curtin, M. Begley, PJ Kelly and I. Lynch expressed an interest in the delivery of 24-hour fire and rescue cover into the future in terms of work/life balance, income, population decline, staff retention etc.
The motion prompted a five-page response from the chief fire officer including an admission that 22 personnel have left the service in the last three years for a variety of reasons.
Mr Kelly explained that the fire service has positions for 75 retained firefighters, 68 are currently employed and the council is taking steps to fill the outstanding vacancies.
In Clare, the service has only two full-timers, the senior fire officer and an Ennis station officer. On the frontline are the retained firefighters, essentially part-timers who must carry a pager and report to their station within five minutes of an alert.
Mr Kelly noted a 37% reduction in the number of incidents attended by the fire service since 2010, a trend that is continuing. Fires, in general, are down from 850 to 398 and incidences of chimney fires have more than halved from 265 to 126.
Cllr Johnny Flynn (FG), claimed the significant movement of personnel within the retained firefighter model had resulted in the loss of experienced people. He noted that firefighters in Ennis and Shannon must mobilise within 10 minutes while those attached to other rural stations have a 20-minute mobilisation.
With regard to the high turnover of personnel, Cllr Flynn deduced that this is a sign of the economic upturn with firefighters having the option of moving into better paid, full-time, employment.
Cllr Gerry Flynn queried the large reduction in incidents of fires and wondered whether this was due to better communication with the general public or as a result of cost-saving exercises?
Noting the relatively low pay for retained firefighters starts at €7,740 and increases after two years to €8,600, Cllr Flynn remarked: “Their lives are on hold while they make themselves available by pager alerts.”
Cllr Cathal Crowe, whose father had been a full-time fireman in Limerick for over 30 years, described pay for a retained firefighter in Clare as “pitiful” considering the risks that are taken.
Regarding the turnover in personnel, chief fire officer Adrian Kelly said opportunities are now available to earn better money and to gain full-time employment elsewhere. As regards the loss of personnel in Clare, Mr Kelly said, “We’ve lost them before and we’ll lose them again. We’ll find replacements and train them to the same standards.”
Commenting on who pays for a call-out, Mr Kelly says the fire service operates on the ‘polluter pays principle’, the person in receipt of the service, or the person who causes the incident, will be asked to pay, not necessarily the person who phoned in the call.
In conclusion, Clare County Council CEO Pat Dowling assured the public that the fire service is fit for purpose at all times. He emphasised that there is no crisis in the service and the issue of pay is part of a national debate on the sustainability of the service.