Being lumbered with ill-trained and ill-equipped troops is not on, says Michael Faulkner
The alarm bells are ringing in the risk management departments of local fire authorities (LFAs). The government is effectively blackmailing them into accepting a deal that could leave LFAs uninsured and bankrupt.
If the firefighters strikes take place, the LFAs will have difficulty providing the basic fire cover required under statute.
But the government has offered them help - at a price.
The deal is contained within a letter from local government minister Nick Raynsford. Couched in heartening language, he promises the services of military personnel and the police, and graciously agrees that the government will bear these additional costs.
But there is a nasty sting in the tail.
For the deal to go ahead, the LFAs must accept the risk of liability arising from incidents at the fire ground. And there is concern that this will dramatically increase their exposure.
The LFAs are fearful that the terms of the deal may make them responsible for the negligent acts of the army and police - people over whom they will have no control and who are not trained or equipped to the same standard as firefighters.
Nick Raynsford plays down the matter, shrouding the danger in a collection of comforting yet unhelpful adjectives. The risk is "small" and the chance of additional exposure "unlikely," says the letter.
But what does this mean? Does a small risk refer to the number of incidents, their severity or the likelihood of additional exposure?
Such vague and imprecise language is unhelpful in relation to such a difficult and contentious legal issue - an issue that has not been tested in court.
Moreover, insurers have already said that they will not cover the full extent of the additional liability, leaving LFAs to foot the bill for any legal claims. The spectre of debt and bankruptcy looms large.
The LFAs have every right to be outraged. The letter purports to hold out a reassuring hand to the LFAs, yet the detail belies a devil.
The government knows that the LFAs have no choice but to accept the proposal: they need the government's help and the first strike is due to take place next month.
And while the LFAs may argue about the clause after the strikes are over, if a legal dispute did arise, the LFAs may not be able pursue it on the basis that to do so would not be a good use of public money.
The government is attempting to save itself money by shifting the liability risk of the strikes on to the LFAs and their insurers in a sly and underhand way.