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Retired firefighters could be hired to plug fire service staffing gaps

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The fire service could call on retired firefighters to plug gaps in staffing. (File photograph)

Retired firefighters could be called back into action to bolster the ranks of the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service, The Royal Gazette can reveal.

Michael Weeks, the Minister of National Security, said the move was part of a “high-priority” plan to restore manpower levels within the force.

The Fire Service Association has complained of a lack of resources — in both staff and equipment — for several years. The row came to a head in November, when the association issued a 21-day strike notice because of a lack of staff at the Clearwater fire station at Southside.

That issue was settled before arbitration when then-minister Renée Ming agreed that a minimum of six staff were needed to man the station’s fire truck and ambulance.

Ms Ming was dismissed by David Burt, the Premier, at the end of March, and replaced by Mr Weeks a week later. Firefighters claim that, in the interim, the Government backtracked on its agreement and issued an order that a team of just four firefighters were needed to man the East End fire truck and ambulance.

That move prompted a second labour dispute notice from the FSA last week — along with a vote of no confidence in chief fire officer Lloyd Burchall.

Seeking solutions: Michael Weeks, the Minister of National Security (File photograph)

Last week, Mr Weeks came out in support of Mr Burchall and the BFRS management team.

But in a second statement issued at the weekend, he insisted that the crisis was “a high priority” — and that plans were in place to bring in more staff.

Mr Weeks said: “The Ministry of National Security and the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service are developing a plan to address staffing shortages in both the short and long term to reduce the requirement for excessive overtime.”

A ministry spokesman added: “This is a high priority for the minister.”

Mr Weeks met firefighters on Thursday.

After that meeting, he said: “Today’s briefing has been a real eye-opener as to the complex operations that are performed on a daily basis and the high level of professionalism and skill that are brought to bear.

“I appreciate the time taken to enhance my understanding of the fire service, and I am eager to continue these discussions as we work to ensure that our residents continue to receive the response and support that they expect and deserve.”

According to a ministry spokesman, Mr Weeks was briefed on how resources are used “despite the tight budgetary constraints across government”, and how coverage is maintained when the ambulance at the Clearwater fire station responds to medical emergencies.

The spokesman said: “One of the main challenges is the number of personnel available at any one time balanced against the services expected by the public.

“Initial efforts have been focused on understanding the requirements for all of the services provided by the BFRS — including East End ambulance support and airport operations fire safety, alongside island-wide coverage for structural fires.

“These requirements were reviewed against existing staffing levels. Where there is a shortfall, we will look at filling those gaps through the local contracting of recently retired firefighters.

“A normal recruit intake will be conducted to address medium and long-term personnel challenges.”

Mr Weeks refused to comment further on the current dispute, claiming that “it would not be appropriate” because the matter is to go before an arbitration panel.

But he added: “The public can be assured that the ambulance service for the East End will be maintained.

“I think any commentary on these issues has to start with recognising the incredible job the BFRS has done throughout the pandemic.

“These women and men have literally been at the front line of serving the public non-stop, and their efforts have been appreciated by the entire community.

“There has been no interruption in their service to our community, and for this we continue to be extremely grateful.”

A spokesman for the FSA, speaking to The Royal Gazette before Mr Weeks issued his statement, maintained that firefighters were willing to provide both medical and fire coverage in the East End — but needed the resources to do so.

The spokesman said: “FSA members want to respond and ensure that the eastern end has full fire and ambulance coverage at all times.

“That said, the health and safety of FSA members and the public cannot continue to be discounted and overlooked. We want to respond safely and with the appropriate manpower — two personnel on the ambulance and four on the fire truck simultaneously. Central and western end areas are afforded that level of coverage but the East End is not.

‘It's not the case for the central and west stations. How is it fair to residents of the East End? Why should they be treated different?

“The fact is, the BFRS is operating short-staffed and it's not fair to the public we serve.

“The public have a right to know the truth and the truth is that the BFRS staff shortage is a health and safety issue — not just for the FSA members, but for the members of the public as well.”

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Published April 26, 2022 at 7:58 am (Updated April 26, 2022 at 11:29 am)

Retired firefighters could be hired to plug fire service staffing gaps

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