More than 1,500 off-duty firefighters took to the streets yesterday to fight for a cut in their working hours in what their union said was one of the biggest protests of its kind in 10 years. On-duty staff also joined the action with a sit-in at their stations while complaining that the Fire Services Department had limited their right to protest. Firefighters have been battling for 23 years for a reduction in their hours from 54 to 48 a week, in line with other disciplined services. Fire Services Department Staffs General Association chairman Lee Tak-kei said they were losing patience. He said a critical point had been reached without any positive response from the government. 'Society is now discussing standard work hours and we hope the government can take the lead to reduce our hours and be a role model,' Lee said. He said the union would not accept a proposal by the department to cut hours from 54 to 51 by reducing staff on the night shift as this would put the public at risk. One of the on-duty protesters, Li Chi-sum, held aloft a poster at the front gate of Kong Wan fire station in Harbour Road, Wan Chai, in apparent defiance of a management ban on placards outside stations. A tearful Li said the department, which issued a memo saying placards and posters could only be erected inside stations, had suppressed their rights to take part in the labour movement. 'Banners were only allowed to be put up inside the station after the intervention of the union,' he said. The department said it respected the rights of the union and its members to protest but had issued guidelines to ensure any action did not interfere with efficiency and safety. It said banners were allowed inside only if they did not hinder operations. It would carry out follow-up checks to see whether any had been displayed outside. The union did not rule out stepping up its action but said a strike was unlikely as public safety came first. It is asking to meet the management, the Security Bureau and the Civil Service Bureau to seek a mutually acceptable plan. The department said it had explored the feasibility of cutting hours but any solution must not add to costs, require additional manpower or reduce the level of service.