Firies strike puts heat on Premier

Angry firefighters appear determined to keep fighting changes to WorkCover that would lessen their coverage while travelling to and from work.

About a thousand firefighters in the Hunter, Sydney and Illawarra regions went on strike for five hours yesterday afternoon over the changes that the O’Farrell government wants pushed through NSW Parliament to reduce costs for WorkCover.

VIDEO: Reporter Ian Kirkwood and photographer Simone De Peak spoke to Luke Russell, from the Fire Brigade Employees Union, and firefighter Jason Morgan during the strike.

Police and other rescue workers have been exempted from the cuts to travel coverage, and a deal struck yesterday with Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile appeared to have added the firefighters to that list during the day.

But Fire Brigade Employees Union sub-branch secretary Luke Russell said he did not believe Mr Nile’s proposals helped firefighters or ambulance officers – who were also exposed to the changes – in any meaningful way.

Mr Russell said the union executive would meet in the coming days to work out its next move.

Debate on the changes was continuing in the upper house last night, and Greens MP David Shoebridge said the Nile changes would ‘‘rule out 99per cent of journey claims’’.

Striking Newcastle firefighters said they had no choice but to take their first strike action since the 1950s because they were being treated unfairly by comparison with other rescue workers.

Fire Brigade Employees Union branch secretary Luke Russell said volunteer firefighters were covered once they were called out on a job but permanent fire fighters were not.

About a dozen fire engines were parked on the Newcastle foreshore for a mass meeting of about 200 firefighters yesterday afternoon but they left quietly, unlike their Sydney colleagues who drove their engines to Macquarie Street, hosed the Parliament building roof and marched down the street outside in protest, their sirens wailing.

Firefighters extended a ladder over Parliament House and sprayed the roof with water.

That action could lead to criminal charges.

‘‘As a result of the poor behaviour by a number involved in the protest NSW Police Force may pursue action against those individuals who may have broken the law,’’ a police spokesman said.

The strike angered Premier Barry O’Farrell, who said the union ‘‘lost their opportunity to meet with me when they took a decision this morning to go on strike’’.

‘‘That is one of the most irresponsible actions I’ve ever heard of from a public sector union in the history of this state,’’ Mr O’Farrell said in Parliament.

One house, in Sydney’s southern suburbs, caught fire during the strike, and a woman and her baby were rescued by a passer-by.

The NSW Industrial Commission issued an interim award requiring some firefighters to return to work to maintain staffing levels during yesterday’s strike, which finished at 5pm.

Fire & Rescue NSW welcomed a commission ruling that will prevent any further industrial action by firefighters for the next three months.

The union has agreed to abide by the ruling.

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