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How to Resolve the British Fire Dispute
Publication date: 2002-11-24

The solution to the problem to the current Fire Strike is obvious, but all the parties concerned cannot see it, because they are blinded by their politics, prejudices and emotions.

Historically in Britain fire services started as local voluntary operations, groups of people coming together to fight fire.

By 1938 fire services became established as a collection of unrelated local public organisations administered by Borough Councils, Parish Councils, as well as of private commercial organisations and private internal brigades on industrial or commercial sites.

The Fire Brigades Act 1938 transferred the powers to operate Fire Brigades from Parish Councils to Borough, Urban District and Rural District Councils.

In 1941, the fire services were merged into a unified, structured National Fire Service under the control of the central government (Home Office), but in 1958 the Fire Service was transferred back to County Borough and County Councils.

And it is this fragmented fire service that is in operation today.

Most of the firemen are members of the Fire Brigades Union. And it is this organisation that seeks to improve the financial position of the firemen through strikes and industrial disputes.

The problem with the doctrine of "industrial relations" is that it is based on the assumption that the relationship between an employer and an employee is that of master and servant, rather than of a commercial bargain.

In a master and servant relationship the servant owes to the master a general duty of obedience, while a master owes to the servant a general duty of care, while in a commercial bargain one party sells to the other a commodity or a service in exchange for money or money's worth.

In most cases of employment an employee sells to an employer his time, skills and energy in exchange for money or money's worth, and the way the employee's time, skills, and energy are used are specifically defined. This is clearly a commercial bargain.

For historical, psychological and political reasons the relationship of employment is seen as that of master and servant. This view is inextricably connected with the myths of the working class, class struggle and socialism. The modern left-center-right party politics are rooted in these myths, and so are trade-unionism and the theory and practice of industrial relations.

While in most cases the relationship of employment is a commercial bargain, the relationship of master and servant has not totally disappeared. An example of such relationship is military service.

A person joining the army pledges to the army an unspecified duty of obedience, and the army takes total control of and responsibility for the serviceman's life. This is a clear case of a master and servant relationship. Such relationship is dictated by the very nature of military service.

Historically the main purpose of the army was to conquer other countries, and to resist being conquered by other countries. Today conquest of other countries has become obsolete, and so is resistance to be conquered. The role of the army is becoming international policing and dealing with major emergencies - earthquakes, floodings, epidemic diseases, major fires, or, as in case of the present fire strike, replacing striking fire brigades.

But is it not more appropriate to transfer the task of fire fighting to the army not as a standby, but as permanent part of armed forces?

Fire hazards are risks and dangers, from which people need to be protected unconditionally, at any time, at any place within the area of governance. It is a general public danger similar to natural disasters, and it is not localized to any group of population or geographical area. And for that reason it is a duty of central government.

By its very nature the activity of fire fighting is similar to the activities performed by the army. It is dangerous, unpredictable, requiring constant training and constant readiness to act. It cannot be left to the vagaries of the commercial market, nor can the commitment of firemen be restricted or measured in monetary terms. This is the same as army service.

The present fire services should be either made a branch of the armed forces, or set up as an independent military style service, as it was done in 1941. This will enable the government to perform its duties of protecting the public from fire hazards with the required level of skill and reliability. And, of course, to attract people to such service the conditions of service will have to be sufficiently attractive for the fire servicemen. This is true not only of fire services, but of all essential services, provision of which is duty of the government.


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