EMERGENCY workers at the home of Britain’s nuclear weapons on the Clyde are today starting continuous industrial action over “major safety concerns” after managers slashed firefighter numbers.
Action has been given the go-ahead following a ballot of workers after managers proceeded with cuts to eight posts from the specialist fire safety crew at HM Naval Base Clyde, a reduction in strength of 15 per cent, with the a union describing it as an “an accident waiting to happen”.
The move was confirmed to staff earlier this year by management of outsourcing services firm Capita which won the contract in 2020 for fire response services from the Ministry of Defence and insists the cuts would actually improve safety.
The union Unite Scotland has slammed the decision taken by Capita management in consultation with the Ministry of Defence to press ahead with cuts to fire crews alongside the lack of promised new fire vehicles and updated equipment.
The trade union representing around 45 fire safety crew workers has made repeated representations to Capita management which have raised ‘more concerns’, in addition to those around staffing levels.
Now 45 fire and rescue workers at Capita will start an overtime ban from today in a dispute over the staffing levels for dealing with emergencies at the Coulport and Faslane naval bases.
On a ballot turnout of 91.1%, some 78% supported strike action and all back action short of a stoppage.
Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Clyde is the navy’s headquarters in Scotland and is best known as Britain’s nuclear weapons base, in the form of a fleet of four Vanguard-class submarines equipped with Trident nuclear missiles and five other Astute and Trafalgar-class nuclear-powered attack submarines.
Workers believe the cuts impair the abilities of the onsite fire crews to do their jobs properly, particularly, in relation to incidents that would involve wearing breathing apparatus.
Nuclear submarine HMS Vanguard arrives back at HM Naval Base Clyde, Faslane, Scotland following a patrol.
Capita has stated that they intend to mitigate safety risks due to the cuts through an Winvestment in new technology to reduce fire risk”.
But workers have said they are not aware of any new technology which would address ongoing safety concerns.
Capita has said that the impact to personnel was “minimal”.
It is understood Capita are set to seek local authority support from nearby fire stations in an effort to ‘back fill’ the specialist safety response.
Capita said local authority fire and rescue service cover has “always been provided at these sites and “those arrangements have not changed”.
But Unite has argued that the ‘back-up’ service would be difficult to deliver due to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s current policy regarding radiation incidents and incidents onboard submarines.
They say it means that SFRS staff who attend incidents may be unable to deliver the same firefighting and rescue actions that the current onsite specialist firefighters are trained to deliver.
The union says the fire service also does not have the statutory right to enter premises like Coulport and Faslane.
They say that in order to inspect and plan for a fire scenario, the service need the authority from the Ministry of Defence to inspect premises.
Staff have also raised further safety concerns around Royal Navy search and rescue procedures, and how that in practice works with Capita or local authority search and rescue operations.
Unite understands that in the event of any major incident, Royal Navy personnel would use their own emergency breathing system, which is hose-fed internally, and that their priority is to protect the vessel.
In some circumstances, injured personnel would be placed in a safe place, rather than an extraction operation that would be the norm for a conventional fire team by either Capita or a local authority.
Debbie Hutchings, Unite industrial officer, said: “We have been in dialogue with Capita since their decision to press ahead with cutting the fire response services at the bases, but more concerns have been raised throughout this process. There is a lack of clarity, cohesion and coordination about what would exactly happen in several major incident scenarios. We simply haven’t received any credible answers to our questions.
“It’s deeply worrying that in all the years the bases have been in operation, there hasn’t been a practical exercise for maximum credible incident scenarios with all the relevant agency involvement. These are routine exercises which are regularly done on other safety critical sites but they are not happening at the naval bases.
“We are open to dialogue with Capita, and the other relevant organisations including the Royal Navy and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, to ensure that the correct level of planning and resources is in place because that doesn’t exist right now.”
Capita has insisted that no additional responsibility was being placed on the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.
It said it had introduced several new technical systems to “enhance fire safety and operational delivery” across all stations, including at HMNB Clyde.
They include a global fire station log as well as a new procedure to manage risk assessments.
Coulport and Faslane were due to receive new firefighting vehicles which would “reduce the training burden for firefighters, increase maintenance efficiency and increase flexibility”.
The industrial action comes after a warning that the nuclear submarine base could be “crippled” by a separate dispute as civilian staff threaten to down tools in a dispute over pay.
Around 70 specialists employed to maintain the Trident weapons systems at Coulport were sent ballots from from last week.
If backed by members, the union could call for an overtime ban at the Royal Naval Armaments Depot – with future strike action not being ruled out.
The base on Loch Long is the storage and loading facility for the nuclear warheads loaded on to submarines, which are based at nearby Faslane.
If the workers walked out it is claimed it would play havoc with essential maintenance which is planned in detail up to a year in advance of each submarine leaving port.
The staff involved are employed by three separate private companies – AWE, Babcock Marine, and Lockheed Martin UK Strategic Systems – which form part of the ABL Alliance, a joint venture which won a 15-year contract from the Ministry of Defence in 2013 to maintain the weapons systems at Coulport.
In May, official figures revealed there were 443 nuclear safety incidents recorded at Scotland’s the naval base over the past three years, with the frequency of incidents soaring.
It is nearly half the number of incidents recorded at Coulport and Faslane over the 12 years to 2018 when there were 789 nuclear safety events.
Some 505 incidents had taken place at Faslane, where the majority of the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet is based.
But the UK government has said that the “safety significance” of the reported events was low, with none causing “harm or resulting in the unauthorised discharge of radioactive waste”.
A Capita spokesman said: “We are disappointed by Unite’s decision to proceed with industrial action regarding MOD-approved changes that have been made to resourcing levels at Faslane and Coulport. We have a range of contingency options agreed with Defence Fire and Rescue and the Royal Navy’s Clyde leadership team which will ensure the delivery of fire service operations is maintained.
“Our recommendations to increase or decrease resourcing levels at any MOD site have to be endorsed by Defence Fire and Rescue’s Chief Fire Officer, and ultimately approved by the site’s leadership team. Any such decision would follow on from a thorough review of fire risks. In this case, our proposed changes were also validated through the conduct of four confirmatory exercises and a lengthy process of scrutiny by the base leadership team.
“Capita is working with Defence Fire and Rescue to modernise the MOD’s fire and rescue capability. Our £85 million investment in new firefighting vehicles, digital technology, and enhanced training facilities is improving firefighting capabilities and reducing risk to our firefighters, MOD personnel and critical military assets.”