Despite a long campaign for shorter working hours, firefighters voted against a government proposal to cut their night shifts, saying the move would endanger the public.
About 1,500 members of the Fire Services Department Staffs General Association angrily voted down the plan to reduce the working week from 54 hours to 51 at a meeting in the Southorn Indoor Stadium in Wan Chai. The Fire Services Department proposal, suggested last month, would cut back on the number of night shift staff on duty by giving each firefighter an additional 12-hour break at night once a month.
Association chairman Lee Tak-kei said the management's proposal - which the union also voted against in 2008 - was disappointing because it would weaken the service's ability to respond to fires. 'If we have an unfortunate situation where several fires occur in a single night, this would make us late in responding to some of them,' he said.
He blamed management for not consulting officers and urged it to roll out a timetable to reduce the working week to their target of 48 hours.
Association vice-chairman Tse Sau-lung said if the proposal was put into practice, there would be about 200 fewer firefighters per night.
This meant that for every three stations, there would be one less fire engine that could be called out to a blaze. He said some firefighters would need to be redeployed to other stations to make up the manpower shortage.
One firefighter, who wished to remain anonymous, said the plan would leave them more exhausted as they would need to move around to other stations.
He said: 'It is so troublesome to move to other places with our equipment, and what we gain in return is just a night off. We are actually more exhausted on average.'
Sunny Ho, a veteran of the service with more than 30 years of experience and who is on fire boat duty, said officers needed to acquire a licence before being qualified to work on the water, so it was difficult to find replacements if staffing levels on boats were cut at night.
At present, firefighters work on a shift system of 24 hours on, 48 hours off. The working hours include stand-by in stations and training sessions.
Achieving a reduction in working hours has long been bound by three conditions that a standing committee on salaries had set in 2008.
They are that no additional costs nor manpower be incurred and that the ability to provide the same level of service be maintained.
A department spokesman said the proposal had detailed how to maintain service quality without changing the operational standards and procedures. He said the department would carefully put forward pilot schemes, if staff supported the proposal.
The union will hold another meeting to gauge members' views in Kowloon Tong today, in which another 400 to 500 members are expected to cast their votes. They will meet the management on Monday and decide on any follow-up action.
The city's firemen have been fighting for a 48-hour work week to be on par with other disciplined services. Their week was last cut 21 years ago, from 60 hours to 54.