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Tuesday, 22 October, 2002, 09:00 GMT 10:00 UK
Is the Green Goddess up to it?
When striking firefighters abandon their shiny, new engines, they are replaced by military personnel in appliances built half a century ago. Why?

To compare a modern fire engine to a 49-year-old Bedford self-propelled pump - better known as a Green Goddess - is a little like comparing a Harrier jump jet to a Spitfire.

"For basic firefighting they're all right," says retired fireman Ronald Murray, "but if my house was on fire I'd want a real fire engine."

A Green Goddess
Bedford self-propelled pump:
  • Built: 1953-1956
  • Weight: 8.4 tonnes
  • Hoses: 1,600 feet
  • Main pump: capable of feeding four hose-lines with 900 gallons per minute
  • Other features: unlike red fire engines, the Green Goddess has four-wheel drive
  • When production began in 1953, the Green Goddess was a state-of-the-art fire engine - unusually able to produce extinguishing foam as well as pump water.

    "They were better than what most local authorities had," says Mr Murray, who so enjoyed his time manning a Green Goddess that he gave a home to one when the government recently cut its fleet of the ageing vehicles.

    The Green Goddess was designed to roll into action in the aftermath of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. With urban fire brigades decimated, Green Goddesses manned by civilian volunteers from the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) would head into cities to tackle blazes and help restore vital water supplies.

    The Kremlin never launched its nuclear missiles, and in 1968 the AFS was disbanded and the Green Goddess fleet was put into storage.

    Open in new window : Green Goddess
    See inside the UK's reserve fire engine

    These "emergency appliances" have since ventured out to help pump water in floods and droughts, but are synonymous with walkouts by UK's regular firefighters - most notably the 1977 strike, when 20,750 servicemen manned more than 1,000 Green Goddess engines.

    With firefighters now striking for a 40% pay rise, the Ministry of Defence is again ready to put 827 Green Goddesses on call as part of Operation Fresco.

    A Green Goddess and police escort, 1977
    The Green Goddess is synonymous with strikes
    While many Green Goddesses have fewer than 3,000 miles on the clock, can such old vehicles really tackle fires and accidents in the 21st Century?

    Mr Murray's Green Goddess has only broken down once. And while the ride is somewhat bumpy and the brakes unforgiving, he says the 8.4-tonne vehicle can happily reach 50mph.

    "There's no reason they can't be used. Age doesn't make a difference, provided they are well maintained," says Mr Murray.

    Wrapped in cotton wool

    The Green Goddess fleet is cared for by the private transport firm TNT at an aircraft hanger near Uttoxeter, in Staffordshire.

    According to the government, the engines are "regularly serviced to ensure that they remain in a fully operational condition".

    Just before being handed over to TNT in 1990, ministers boasted that of the 218 engines housed at Bruntingthorpe aerodrome, 215 were ready for immediate action.
    An Army firefighting team
    Operation Fresco:
  • 827 Green Goddesses: Crew of six soldiers, with a specially trained driver and led by a Non-Commissioned Officer.
  • 331 Breathing Apparatus Rescue Teams: Three-man RAF or Royal Navy firefighter teams equipped to enter smoke-filled buildings.
  • 59 Rescue Equipment Support Teams: RAF or Royal Navy firefighters trained to use specialist rescue equipment.
  • The Green Goddess is so easy to maintain precisely because it was designed to be a very simple machine, used by a crew not trained in advanced firefighting techniques.

    "If you just need to pour water on something it's okay, but it doesn't carry the range of equipment fire engines do," says Deputy Chief Fire Officer Alan House, author of They Rode Green Fire Engines.

    Operation Fresco has addressed this lack of specialist equipment, with Green Goddess crews being backed up by expert air force and navy firefighters of the Breathing Apparatus Rescue Teams and Rescue Equipment Support Teams.

    However, even the Green Goddess's ability to spray water is limited. Modern high-pressure pumps shoot out water in a "fog" - a dense spray which can smother a fire with just a little water. The Green Goddess only has a low-pressure pump - which spurts water more like a garden hose.

    No replacement

    Mr House says it is unfair to judge the 900 Green Goddesses against the UK's modern fire appliances.

    Appliance numbers
    England: 4,311 fire engines (644 Green Goddesses)
    Scotland: 520 (111)
    Wales: 189 (40)
    Northern Ireland: 130 (32)
    "They have evolved as a replacement for normal fire engines during industrial action, when in fact they were supposed to work alongside red engines in a disaster. How much longer can we keep relying on them for?"

    As recently as 1998, the government said it had no plans to update the fleet.

    Patrick Cunningham, chairman of the Emergency Planning Society, says the government no longer sees such civil defence spending as a priority.

    "Successive governments have consciously run down our civil defence capabilities with the lessening of international tensions. They plan for disasters such as Lockerbie, rather than updating Green Goddesses in case we are attacked by a hostile power."

    Royal Marines training
    The Green Goddess has a low-pressure pump
    While the British public may feel uneasy when Green Goddesses hit the streets, they might save a thought for the people of Azerbaijan.

    Many of the former Soviet republic's fire engines were apparently sacrificed during the Chernobyl disaster. In 1996, the UK offered them a free replacement. Eighty Green Goddesses.

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