It is 12.15 a.m. I much appreciate the fact that the Minister has taken time out to be present to deal with the serious, urgent and potentially dangerous situation that is unfolding in County Roscommon. On Monday, 14 firefighters were dismissed for failure to attend a breathing apparatus refresher course. The reason they refused to attend it is because the national proposal on the matter has not been agreed, yet Roscommon County Council wants to proceed with an approach that would result in firefighters passing or failing the breathing apparatus course with the consequent risk of losing their job. I tend to agree with the firefighters.
As of yesterday, there was an interim agreement in the Labour Relations Commission that is valid until 1 December. The firefighters in Roscommon need to ballot on the same proposal. Today, 14 more firefighters in County Roscommon were dismissed. There is now no emergency cover in County Roscommon. We had a fire in my area where only five firefighters were mobilised, because that is all that was left, and we had to bring in a unit from another area to help put out the fire. As of tomorrow, Roscommon County Council wants to bring in the Army to put in a piecemeal service that is not trained to the same level as the firefighters. It also wants to put the lives of Army personnel at risk. I am sure their wives too would have something to say on the matter.
The approach of Roscommon County Council is very heavy handed. It is bordering on bullying. Men with 32 years service in their early 50s are now being told by management that if they fail a course, they are no longer considered useful in the fire service. That is outlandish. According to The Irish Times the answer of Roscommon County Council is that even with half of the workforce in the fire service it is able to cope, which begs the question that if it is able to cope with half the fire service why we need as many as we have. Is this just an excuse on its behalf? It is absolutely ludicrous.
As I mentioned recently in the Seanad, in most cases across the country most of the chief fire officers and assistant chief fire officers — the statistic is approximately 90% — never did fire training. They were never firemen. They were engineers that did a four week course and who all of a sudden knew everything about the fire service, more than someone who has 32 years service in the fire brigade. As I said yesterday, some of them never put out a cigarette, let alone a fire.
I will raise this point again with the Minister, namely, that it is time we had an integrated national fire and ambulance service. In the North of Ireland there is one chief fire officer and two assistant fire officers covering a population of 1.7 million. We have 30 chief fire officers and 300 assistant chief fire officers for 4.7 million people. It is an absolute waste of money. The system is top heavy and we must address it.
I am dealing with young and middle aged firefighters with young families in my county, some of whose wives are not in the best of health for one reason or another. Neighbours of mine in their early 50s have 32 years service in the fire service. They have more experience than any chief fire officer ever had. I have the greatest of respect for firemen. I know the same is true of the Minister. I urge him to intervene and to bring common sense back to the situation because it has been lacking in the entire process. The first step that needs to be taken is to reinstate the firefighters who have been dismissed. They are willing to negotiate. If it is agreed at national level that one can either pass or fail the training they are willing to go along with that but, as yet, there is no agreement. If the Minister does that we will avert a national strike. I would be ashamed to say that if we end up with a national strike over this issue, the one county we can blame for it will be my county, while in other counties they are deciding to go with the old system of not passing or failing but having more refresher training. It is sad that we cannot just deal with the issue. One county can deal with it, but another county is trying to make a name for itself nationally and bring the entire country to a standstill.