Normal Pension Age – review

You will be aware from our past bulletins that the government is in the process of finalising a new pension scheme for employees within the fire service. This scheme will take effect from April 2015. In the meantime the various components of the new scheme have been reviewed, including the decision to replace the final salary scheme with a Career Average Revalued Earning (CARE) scheme. Another key mechanism of the new scheme is the Normal Pension Age (NPA) which provides the employee with a point at which their pension is payable without any potential reductions caused due to issues such as early retirement etc.

The current New Firefighters Pension Scheme (NFPS) 2008 provides for a NPA of 60 years which allows employees to retire at the age of 60 if they so wish. However, this has generated a debate that the NPA of 60 is inappropriate as employees may be unable to maintain the required level of fitness to fulfil their operational duties up to this age.  

In an effort to come to some agreement regarding this specific point the government commissioned a review of the NPA and employed the services of Dr Anthony N. Williams LLM FFOM to undertake this piece of work. The review group included representatives from the Employers side and Employees side. The RFU as a rep body stakeholder on the FPC then entered into discussions with other rep bodies over who would represent the interests of the FPC rep bodies on the review and it was agreed that the FBU would do so, conditional on the fact that the RFU and others would be regularly consulted and our views sought.

A report has now been published (146 pages) and is available from our website.

Unfortunately the report does not provide a definitive answer and parts of the report can be used to argue for and against the use of a NPA of 60 years.

The main problem in our view has been the use of a fitness standard (42 VO2max) promoted by the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) as ‘guidance’ and now used in most Fire & Rescue services. We question the legitimacy of using this level of fitness standard as it is unlikely that current serving personnel can realistically achieve such a standard up to the age of 60. The level is also open to challenge under sex discrimination laws as statistical evidence identifies that genetically females are even less likely to be able to achieve such a standard. It is also worth noting that in his report Dr Williams also acknowledges that ‘aerobic fitness is only one component of total firefighter physical fitness’.

As people age, their VO2max levels reduce, which means that to be able to achieve a fitness standard of 42 VO2max at 60 years of age, the fitness levels at the point of entry into the service will need to be much higher than they currently are.

  • An unrealistic and unnecessary increase in fitness standards will exacerbate the ongoing problems of recruitment and retention of On-Call employees leading to further pump availability problems.
  • Fewer females will be able to join or maintain a career in the service leading to a less diverse workforce.
  • The extra fitness training expected by On-Call staff to maintain and sustain the higher fitness levels will have to be funded both in terms of time and equipment, this at a time when budgets are already being squeezed.

It goes without saying that adopting regular fitness training for Wholetime personnel is unlikely to be difficult, the costs apart from providing fitness equipment will be minimal and easily absorbed into the shift. However, with regard to adopting a similar arrangement for On-Call staff, experience shows that a number of FRSs are adopting a different approach by putting the onus on On-Call staff to keep fit.

Fitness equipment is being installed on Wholetime stations, and On-Call personnel based elsewhere are expected to travel to wherever the equipment is situated, a) in their own time b) at their own cost and c) potentially resulting in reduced availability of appliances.

It would be perverse indeed to suggest that a different standard of fitness should be applied to duty systems carrying out the same type of work and at the same time expect one duty system to have to maintain their own fitness at a cost which other duty systems do not have to meet.

Dr Williams’ reference relating to fitness training that ‘appropriate support and opportunities would be provided for retained firefighters’ is very much open to interpretation at FRS level and requires a much higher level of clarification if it is to satisfy the RFU and its members and not be open to legal challenge. Not forgetting that services have a duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure that firefighters remain fit for duty.

Our view is that the question of an appropriate NPA cannot be answered until such time as an appropriate fitness standard has been agreed (supported by the science); the current situation is putting the cart before the horse. The appropriate fitness standard needs to be evidenced, fit for purpose and achievable; the current standard being widely used is none of these.

Interestingly, the proposal by CFOA to adopt the level of 42 VO2max was rejected at the Practitioners Forum back in 2008 where the RFU submitted a countering document identifying why the CFOA proposal was wrong. Unfortunately it would appear that this rejected proposal has been implemented through the back door – so much for the sector working together to the benefit of its employees!

We would welcome your thoughts on this matter which can be emailed direct to RFU HQ here.

Thank you

John Barton
National General Secretary

Ends

The full report can be downloaded here.

Dr Williams’ recommendations in full

Fitness standard(s). It is essential to determine minimum role-related fitness standard(s) across the UK FRSs.

Fitness selection at recruitment. FRSs should consider informing applicants that those whose fitness is close to 42 mL?kg-1?min-1 are unlikely to maintain fitness to NPA unless they are able to increase their level of physical activity and/or reduce their body mass index.

Fitness assessments. All FRSs should conduct regular fitness assessments for all firefighters to ensure fitness for role is maintained.

Fitness training. All FRSs should implement regular fitness training. We recommend 2.5 hours a week of fitness training should be incorporated into the daily routine of whole time firefighters. Appropriate support and opportunities for fitness training should be provided for retained firefighters.

Early leavers. Firefighters over the age of 55 who can no longer meet the fitness requirement could be allowed to leave early on an actuarially reduced pension. The pension should be calculated so there is no overall financial advantage or disadvantage to the firefighter (or to the pension scheme) from the member leaving before the NPA. This would help address any equality issues in relation to women firefighters and disabled firefighters.

Ill health retirement. In order to avoid any advantages to IHR, those who become permanently medically unfit for firefighting below age 55 could take their pension early at the same rates as those who leave early because they are unable to meet the fitness requirement.

Ill health retirement for a qualifying injury. Where a firefighter becomes permanently medically unfit for firefighting because of a qualifying injury, the current arrangements outlined in the New Firefighter Pension Scheme Regulations 2006 should continue.

Ill health retirement data collection. All FRSs should routinely collect IHR data annually, to include as a minimum the age, role, gender, medical diagnosis and duration of service of the firefighter. An appropriate body should be identified to collect and analyse the data and report annually on their findings.

Fitness data collection. All FRSs should routinely collect fitness data annually; the specific data to be collected should be determined by the current review into fitness standards. An appropriate body should be identified to collect and analyse the data and report annually on their findings. 

Further NPA reviews. The next review should be undertaken once fitness standard(s) have been determined and sufficient data have been collected to measure the effect of implementing these standards. It is unlikely that the review will have sufficient data until at least 2016.

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