FIRE chiefs are facing an unexpected bill of £500,000 for coping with the long-running firefighters' pension dispute at the same time their spending power has also been slashed by millions of pounds.
And the cost will soar further as a result of the 24-hour strike tomorrow by Fire Brigades Union members nationally and another eight hour stoppage later in June.
West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service has already spent £634,000 on providing contingency firefighters when Fire Brigades Union staff have been on strike but savings on wages, pensions and national insurance has left a real cost of slightly more than £500,000.
That money is having to come out of the service's cash reserves, savings meant to cope with emergencies, with no prospect of recovering the money from the Department for Communities and Local Government which is locked in a dispute with the FBU over its decision to hike the cost of pension contributions for firefighters and to reduce benefits for those unable to work to 60 years old on health grounds.
The FBU is resisting the changes and the expectation is the dispute, which has already resulted in 13 strikes and fruitless negotiations, will become increasingly protracted.
If that happens, the pressure on the West Yorkshire service will increase as the bill for providing non-union fire cover goes up. The service has acknowledged that its reserves will not t last indefinitely.
Assistant Chief Fire Officer Dave Walton told the Telegraph & Argus: “The current trade dispute that exists between the Minister and the Fire Brigades Union has resulted in a number of periods of strike action.
“West Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service, in common with all other fire and rescue services, has a statutory obligation to make plans that enable us to continue to deliver our service when faced with disruptive challenges.
“We have a well-developed and extensively tested contingency plan which provides for a much reduced, yet effective, level of emergency response cover.
"As this contingency plan is a departure from 'business as usual' it requires funding and resourcing outside of our day-to-day provision and this is covered by the brigade's contingency reserves.
“For the brigade this is currently an unavoidable, ongoing cost as we must be prepared to respond to industrial action within seven days? notice. As ever, we urge a resolution to be sought to this protracted dispute.”
However, the FBU in West Yorkshire has questioned the need for the level of contingency cover provided.
Branch secretary David Williams said the service had up to 31 fire engines available for strike cover, a far higher number pro-rata than most brigades, with a complication that most had crews who were not fully trained like professional firefighters.
"It is expensive providing resilience but one thing they could do to try to alleviate the cost would be to reduce the amount of contingency cover," Mr Williams said.
"There are greater risks from having fewer engines but if money is getting tight, that may be one way of reducing costs."
However, the service was recruiting another 12 community response fire officers, he said.
Tomorrow's strike is the first 24 hour stoppage since the dispute began and FBU members are also taking action short of striking between the two strike dates. Mr Williams said FBU trainers had asked to be removed from instructing those who would be providing cover during strike periods. However, they had been told by WYFRS management that they most work as normal, he said.
The strike is an additional financial burden for the service, which has had its Government funding cut for several years, including a reduction of almost £4m this year.
The need to make further savings is expected to go on in future years, too. The DCLG regards industrial action as being in the same category as extreme weather, something brigades must tackle without assistance.