By Christine Lavelle
FIREFIGHTERS in the Lothian and Borders service are being given the opportunity to apply for voluntary redundancy or early retirement, as part of a huge cost-cutting operation.
Bosses at Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service have written to every employee asking if they would consider opting out of the service, in a bid to cope with the expected budget cuts, which could reach a total of up to £5 million between 2011 and 2014.
But – the service maintains it is committed to keeping front-line staff numbers up, meaning uniformed staff are likely to have their applications turned down, and instead it is expected that the savings will come from the service’s 180 support workers.
Support staff duties include human resources, IT, cleaning and administration, and it is believed that successful applicants will not have their jobs replaced.
Unions said the move would send out the ‘wrong message’ as the extent of the budget cuts is not yet clear, and they believe any loss of staff would have a negative effect.
Fire chiefs have defended the move, however, saying that the letters – sent out last week with a cut-off date of October 29 – will give managers an indication of how many employees would be interested in the redundancy scheme.
Around 85 per cent of the service’s budget is spent on staff, and bosses say they have few options but to cut the workforce down.
Andy Fulton, chairman of the Lothian and Borders Fire Brigades Union, said: “Any voluntary redundancies will have an impact on the service.
“I’m slightly disappointed in the service for putting out these letters before they are aware of the extent of the cuts.
“It’s the wrong message to send out.
“It will be a few weeks before we know what cuts Scotland will face.
“We seem to be taking up this Tory/Lib Dem government’s approach of saying we must make cuts rather than thinking about how we can provide the service we need.
“That is very negative.”
A panel of managers will consider applicants for redundancy, which would take effect in March next year, but it is understood that no targets have been set as to how many volunteers would be let go, or the amount of savings that would be made.
A spokeswoman for the service said: “The letters are being sent out to all members of staff as part of a policy approved by the fire board.
“All applications for voluntary redundancy will be considered, but applicants may not have them accepted.”
Figures have shown that the service is one of the most efficient in the country, costing £50 a year per head – compared to Scotland’s average of £59.99.
And, over the last six years, the Lothian and Borders service has cut £6.2 million from its annual budget.
Fire chiefs announced previously that they were looking at a number of ways to cut costs, including seeking volunteers to take extended unpaid leave, or to reduce their hours.