Firefighters in England and Wales are staging a fresh strike in their long-running dispute with the Government over pensions.
Members of the Fire Brigades Union walked out at 6.30am – the ninth stoppage since September.
But under the terms of an agreement between the FBU, central government and fire services, strikers will return to work if there is a major emergency which might lead to large numbers of people being put at serious risk.
Firefighters in Kent and Surrey worked during a strike on Christmas Eve because of storm-related floods and damage.
Fresh storms are expected today, during the latest strike, which was due to last two hours.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, said: “The return of Kent and Surrey firefighters to work on Christmas Eve makes a mockery of claims made by a tiny minority of commentators that striking firefighters are ’irresponsible’.
“Firefighters do not want to place the public at risk, and support on the picket lines suggests that the public understands that we cannot stand by and let this pension theft continue.
“It’s time the Government came back with a realistic offer instead of the unworkable proposals they continue to peddle.”
The union said most firefighters who take home around £1,650 a month already pay £320 or more into their pensions, and from April 2014 this will rise for the third year in a row to more than £340, with many facing a fourth consecutive rise of 2.2% in 2015.
The FBU added that evidence suggests that at least two-thirds of the current workforce could face either dismissal or a reduction in their pensions of almost half because they are unable to maintain the fitness standards required by the fire service beyond the age of 55.
The Government maintains that firefighters will continue to receive a good pension, and has criticised the industrial action.
Mr Wrack added: “We are starting this year as we ended the last – in a battle to defend our pension rights and try to make the Government wake up to the evidence we have presented.
“Over the past week, while Government ministers have been enjoying their Christmas break, our members have been on the front line dealing with storms, floods and other emergencies every day.
“It’s fine to praise firefighters for the work they do – but what firefighters really want to hear is that genuine dialogue and negotiation has begun.
“That would be a new year’s message worth listening to. Until that happens our campaign will continue.”
Fire Minister Brandon Lewis said: “The decision by FBU leaders to interrupt the holiday season with unnecessary industrial action is completely cynical.
“I met with the FBU on Christmas Eve to continue discussions but their actions today show that they are not serious about resolving this dispute, which simply further damages fire-fighters’ standing with the public.
“The deal on the table gives firefighters one of the most generous pension schemes in all the public sector.
“A firefighter who earns £29,000, and retires after a full career aged 60, will get a £19,000-a-year pension, rising to £26,000 with the state pension.
“An equivalent private pension pot would be worth over half a million pounds and require firefighters to contribute twice as much.”