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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 12 November, 2002, 13:19 GMT
Q&A: Firefighters' strike
A series of national strikes called by the Fire Brigades Union will begin at 1800 GMT on Wednesday, following the collapse of negotiations with employers.

Union leaders say the 48-hour walkout will be followed by further industrial action in the run-up to Christmas.

BBC News Online explains how the situation came about and what the repercussions could be for the UK.

Why are the firefighters going to strike?

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is demanding a wage rise of nearly 40%, but local authority employers have only offered 4%. An independent review has suggested a rise of 11%.

Why does the FBU want 40%?

Unions say the present pay scheme - which was agreed after the last national strike in 1977 - is outdated and members are losing out.

They want to increase the basic pay level for qualified firefighters from 21,500 to 30,000.

They say many firefighters are so poorly paid they cannot afford a mortgage and have to supplement their income with top-up jobs.

What does the government say?

The interim independent review, commissioned by the government, has come up with proposals for improving the pay and conditions of firefighters.

The review, headed by Sir George Bain, recommended 4% in 2002 and 7% in 2003, coupled with substantial changes to firefighters' working conditions.

The government wants firefighters to consider the review as a "sound basis" for continued negotiations with their employers.

It said the 11% rise could be almost self-financing, if coupled with reforms and "efficiency savings".

It feared the demanded 40% rise would have a knock-on effect in the rest of the public sector.

If similar wage rises were introduced across the board the basic rate of income tax would have to rise by 20%, or 3.9p in the pound, they say.

What kind of changes to working conditions is the review referring to?

In their submission to the Bain review, the firefighters' employers say they "consider there is a case (in return for modernisation) for a new pay position for firefighters."

They maintain the fire service is in urgent need of reform, in order to make it more responsive to the demands of the public.

For example, the FBU ban on voluntary pre-arranged overtime must be lifted.

There are also calls for more flexible work patterns - at the moment firefighters regularly work four days on, four off.

Employers want to look at different shifts and more part-time working.

The service is currently 99% male and 98.5% white and the employers are keen to open up the profession to more women and ethnic minorities.

The FBU says it has no problem with creating a more diverse workforce.

The union says the employers' demands for "modernisation" have become a "tired old agenda".

It says it has already modernised and says that indeed is the basis of its pay claim.

When is the strike action going to happen?

A final round of talks was held on 12 November between the FBU and the employers.

Following the failure of the negotiations a 48-hour strike is due to begin at 1800 GMT on Wednesday.

Three eight-day strikes follow, with the first running from 22 November to 30 November, then 4 December to 12 December and finally 16 December to 24 December.

These strikes are expected to start and finish at 0900 GMT.

Who is going to tackle fires during these strikes?

The Army - with back up from smaller numbers of Royal Navy and RAF personnel - is on stand-by to provide cover with their ageing Green Goddess fire engines.

A total of 827 Green Goddesses - which date back to the 1950s - will be available to provide cover for the UK's 3,000 civilian fire engines.

FBU officials say many of the ageing military vehicles will not be able to travel at more than 35mph - half the speed of today's fire engines.

When on call, the Green Goddesses need a police escort because they are not equipped with radios.

What happened during the 1977 strike?

Some 30,000 workers were involved in that strike which lasted for nine weeks.

People were encouraged to keep buckets of sand and water at home and fire brigades issued safety guides to cut the risk of fires.

A total of 10,000 Army, Navy and RAF personnel manned fleets of Green Goddesses on the streets to tackle emergencies.

As the strike continued into the winter, stories emerged of how the well-disciplined military were not equipped to deal with the big emergencies.

The fire fighters finally agreed to settle for a 10% pay rise with guarantees of future increases and they went back to work on 16 January.

Apart from emergency cover, what else will be affected by the strike action?

London Underground will close 19 of its stations which are on deep underground levels, although Tube services themselves should not be affected.

Rail and Channel Tunnel services will be unaffected and airline travel should be able to cope with individual fire services at airports staffed by non-FBU personnel.

Football officials say all premier league and nationwide league matches should go ahead, as long as contingency plans for emergency cover are approved by local authorities.

 VOTE RESULTS
Do you back the firefighters' strike?

Yes
 4.07% 

No
 95.93% 

64332 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion


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