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Thursday, 5 September, 2002, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
Fire strike 'would threaten Iraq action'
Royal Marine on desert exercise
Critics say UK troops are already stretched to the limit
The number of troops needed to cope with a threatened national firefighters' strike could make UK involvement in military action against Iraq "impossible", BBC News Online has learnt.

Hundreds of soldiers are already being trained to take over the firefighters' jobs but many thousands will be needed if a dispute about pay triggers a full walk-out.


It doesn't take a great intellect to work out that if at least 10,000 soldiers are covering a national fire strike, there is no way we can go to war in Iraq as well

Senior Army source
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is recommending a strike to its members for the first time in 25 years after demands for a 40% increase in salaries were rejected.

The government has confirmed 19,000 soldiers would be required to staff stations, engines and fight fires should the first national strike since 1977 go ahead.

And a senior Army source warned that would mean "no way we can go to war in Iraq".

If 19,000 men and women are called in, the majority will come from Germany, he said - which means accommodation in the UK will also be a problem.

'Seven regiments'

Solutions under consideration include opening old barracks, basing the forces in fire stations or using old RAF camps as temporary homes.

The source added: "Where are they all going to live? It's a problem. Thousands of men, the equivalent of about seven regiments - that's a lot of soldiers.

A 'Green Goddess' fire engine
Army 'Green Goddess' fire engines may soon be in the streets
"Aside from that, there is the question of who continues their duties and more difficult, how do we mount a force to go into Iraq if that is what ministers decide?

"It doesn't take a great intellect to work out that if at least 10,000 soldiers are covering a national fire strike, there is no way we can go to war in Iraq as well."

The Ministry of Defence had earlier refused to say how many soldiers would be needed to cover a national fire strike but after the figures were put to the government by BBC News Online, a spokesman from Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's office revealed it would be 19,000.

Speculation has been mounting this week that US-led military action against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is looming.

While UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has not been drawn on British involvement, he has said he will not leave America to face the "unique" threat from Iraq alone.

Talks stalled

Any military strike is not likely to take place for some months yet.

But moves towards a firefighters' strike are just days away, with the Fire Brigades' Union (FBU) recalling its national conference on 12 September to vote on industrial action after talks with employers broke down on Monday.

The government announced on Thursday there would be a firefighters' pay review but the FBU is not expected to cancel the recall as a result.


Of course there will be some implications, but it is a question of balancing

MoD spokesman

The spokesman for Mr Prescott's office - which is co-ordinating the strike contingency plans - confirmed that 650 soldiers from the 2nd battalion of the Prince of Wales' regiment in Aldershot were undergoing breathing apparatus training.

He also said from all three services, there would be:

  • 827 Green Goddess (Army fire engine) crews manned by 10,000 personnel
  • 331 specialist breathing apparatus-trained teams
  • 59 specialist rescue teams of 2,500 personnel
  • 6,500 administrative and command posts.

He said: "It would be entirely irresponsible of the government not to consider how best to protect public safety in the event of industrial action."

During the last national fire strike in 1977, 10,000 servicemen from the army, navy and air force stepped in as emergency cover using Army fire engines, nicknamed green goddesses.

Need for 'balance'

A spokesman for the MoD said talk of both a fire strike and action against Iraq was "purely hypothetical".

He added: "There are a lot of 'ifs' here, but if there is a fire strike we will have to strike a balance.

"Of course there will be some implications, but it is a question of balancing."

The military currently has commitments ranging from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan alongside a staffing shortfall of more than 7,400.

In April Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon admitted that "we (the Army) are at the limits of our commitments".

Last month, in talking about sickness levels among soldiers, Paul Keetch, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman said: "The British Army is not big enough to have 10,000 soldiers out of action and not feel the effects."


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