The government is preparing to bring in an external consultant to review the staffing structure of the Fire Services Department, as firefighters consider its latest proposal to resolve a decades-long dispute over their working hours.
The department will also begin a six-day exercise today soliciting views from its 6,000 firefighters on the new proposal, which would cut their working hours.
Firefighters believe the move to hire a consultant is an attempt to pressure them to accept the new proposal, which falls short of their 23-year-old demand to cut the working week from 54 hours to 48, in line with other disciplined services.
A proposal from department management to cut working hours to 51 was rejected in March on the grounds that it would cut staffing on night shifts, but a new proposal, also based on a 51-hour working week, was put forward last week. The idea of hiring consultants to study staffing was first raised at a meeting between the Civil Service Bureau, the Security Bureau, the Fire Services Department and a staff union last month intended to break the deadlock, according to one fireman who asked not to be named.
"Every time there is a review, there will be some changes and some people will be afraid of changes," the firefighter said.
A report by the government's internal consulting arm, the Efficiency Unit, last year criticised the department for lacking planning, manpower and an integrated computer system for the procurement of equipment.
The latest proposal to cut working hours would see the number of firefighters sent to a category one fire - the least severe of the five categories of fire - reduced from 22 to 20.
If the proposal is approved, a trial of between one and three years would begin next year, and a working group studying the idea of a 48-hour working week would be created when the 51-hour week was implemented.
Senior officers are believed to be lobbying support for the plan.
Donny Mak Kam-fai, vice-chairman of the Fire Services Officers Association, which represents senior officers, expects the new proposal to be passed.
But Au Wah-kin, secretary of the Fire Services Department Staffs General Association, has reservations about the proposal and said the union would launch a two-day sit-in outside the new government headquarters in Admiralty today, the latest in a series of protests by firefighters about working hours. In May, 1,500 off-duty firefighters marched about working hours while staff have also taken part in boycotts of non-emergency duties.
The government has insisted that any such change should not cost it more.