Island flights at risk over fire cover dispute

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Flights in and out of Colonsay and Coll would be in jeopardy if emergency firefighter cover is withdrawn from both airports.

The issue came to light after firefighters on the islands had to hand back some holiday pay because of an administrative error.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has confirmed discussions over holiday pay entitlements revealed some firefighters providing emergency cover at the islands’ airports had been overpaid.

Earlier this week, The Oban Times was contacted by a worried reader who heard flights into and out of Colonsay and Coll were about to be grounded because of a dispute involving firefighters.

‘If we don’t have fire crews covering the airport, there won’t be any flights in or out of here,’ said the caller, who wanted to stay anonymous.

When The Oban Times approached Argyll and Bute Council, which has responsibility for the airports, the inquiry not only revealed the holiday pay matter but also that flights in and out of the islands could be at risk if an issue between the council and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) over emergency fire cover was not resolved.

Fire cover at both island airports is currently provided by a number of SFRS volunteers who receive extra training to do the job, which is delivered and managed by Argyll and Bute Council.

Wages for airport work are paid by SFRS, which then invoices the council but, owing to an administration error by SFRS, there were over-payments made in respect to holiday pay arrears.

Those over-payments are now having to be paid back in line with SFRS policy and procedures.

The Oban Times understands SFRS has made arrangements to keep up its emergency airport cover to give the council the time it needs to put longer term staffing strategies in place.

An Argyll and Bute Council spokesperson said: ‘We will continue to do all that we can to provide an air service to the islands. The current arrangements at Coll and Colonsay airports, which fall under the responsibility of the council, is for the SFRS to provide emergency cover.’

SFRS director of finance and contractual services Sarah O’Donnell said: ‘We are presently working with our local authority partners to resolve this issue as quickly as possible – and maintain this vital link for the communities.

‘It has been identified through the course of our discussions in relation to holiday pay entitlements only that some staff have been under-paid and some over-paid, and we are working to resolve this.

‘Our firefighters will continue with their duties and we thank them for their continued service protecting Coll and Colonsay.’

Councillor for the islands Alastair Redman said: ‘This issue of the council finding long-term strategies to staff its own fire cover at the airports isn’t something that can be kicked into the long grass and put off. It has to be dealt with promptly.

‘It can’t be sidelined. Island communities depend on flights in and out.’