There should be an overhaul of pay and conditions for Ireland’s retained firefighters as part of efforts to tackle issues with recruitment and retention, according to a new report to Government.
The review by the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management (NDFEM) suggests changes are needed to remuneration and the availability requirements for the more than 2,000 on-call firefighters around the country.
It says there should be changes in remuneration that balance availability requirements with the varying activity levels at different fire stations as well as measures to improve work-life balance.
Ireland has two types of firefighters – those employed full time in larger urban areas such as the main cities, and the retained fire service that is called out in emergencies by local authorities.
Minister for Housing and Local Government Darragh O’Brien, who commissioned the report, has previously acknowledged “challenges” in recruiting and retaining on-call firefighters.
Sinn Féin has described the situation as a “crisis”.
Retained firefighters are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and two-thirds hold down other employment as well.
While some terms vary from station to station, retained firefighters are generally required to live and work within a five-kilometre radius of their stations.
The NDFEM’s review of recruitment and retention and the future sustainability of retained fire services was drawn up following surveys of management and frontline firefighters.
The current pay arrangements include an annual retainer with a significant portion of pay coming from attending emergency calls, training and special duties.
The annual earnings for a retained firefighter can typically vary from €18,000 to €45,000, depending on how many call-outs there are at their station.
Firefighters surveyed indicated high levels of job satisfaction with 90 per cent reporting good working relationships with colleagues and 89 per cent agreeing their job makes an important contribution to the community.
The report says, however: “It is clear that the impact of the main reasons identified by retained firefighters as to why they may leave the fire service in the near future significantly outweigh the benefits that they feel from performing in the role.”
It says the “most concerning survey finding” is that 58 per cent of firefighters say they are likely to leave within the next three years.
The report shows that some 716 firefighters either resigned or retired in the five year period up to 2016.
Of those that gave reasons, some 122 said they left to move to other employment, 51 due to personal or family circumstances and 33 because of the demands of 24/7 availability.
The report makes 13 recommendations.
The first is that a review be carried out on the existing guidance related to the Area Risk Categorisation of a fire station to consider resources and minimum staffing levels relative to the risk.
This review would also consider the distance and time constraint criteria for firefighters in relation to their residential and working arrangements.
The second recommendation is to bring in a new framework for service delivery.
This would provide remuneration which “effectively balances the availability requirements with the varying activity levels of firefighters in the retained fire services”.
The new framework would also consider structured availability and leave arrangements.
This would be aimed at providing an effective fire service while also offering “a suitable work/life balance for retained firefighters, including structured time off”.
A spokeswoman for Minister O’Brien said he accepts all of the recommendations.
In his commentary with the report, Minister O’Brien said their implementation should begin as soon as possible with engagement with all stakeholders.
He said firefighters are working “in a very demanding environment” and the review is intended to support them and “improve working structures” to ensure the “best possible service for communities”.