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Monday, 21 October, 2002, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
Battle plans for fire strike
The army's green goddess engines are on stand-by

The ability of the armed forces to cope during the firefighters' strike will have been high on the agenda at Monday's meeting of the government's emergency committee Cobra.

A government spokesman has admitted that training 19,000 army, air force and navy personnel on modern equipment would take too much time, raising fears that temporary firefighters will not be able to handle a major emergency.

Events overnight in Blackpool served to illustrate the scale of the potential problem.

It took 100 firefighters and 18 fire engines eight hours to battle a blaze along the Golden Mile.

Inadequate equipment

Next week, when the first 48-hour strike begins, the authorities will be able to call on a maximum of five 50-year-old Green Goddess fire trucks, with inadequate ladders and little or no specialised cutting gear.

Retired Brigadier Alex Birtwistle, who ran the army's response to the foot-and-mouth crisis, warned not to expect too much from the military.

"I'm sure the army will do its duty within the bounds of its equipment and experience and I am sure it will do it very well," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"But nobody pretends that 50-year-old fire tenders are of the same calibre or that somebody who has only had a couple of weeks' training is going to be up to the standard of a full time fireman."

Concerns over the army's ability to respond have already caused London Underground to announce that 19 stations with lifts rather than stairs will close during the strikes.

Detailed planning

The lack of army training on electrified rail lines has also led rail unions to warn that their members may stop work.

"Operation Fresco" has been the subject of months of detailed planning at the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The figures reveal just how thin the cover will be while regular firefighters are on strike.
British troops
The strike could limit the number of soldiers available if war looms

Instead of 50,000 firefighters, the government will be able to call on just 19,000 personnel.

Of these, about 10,000 will man 827 Green Goddesses (compared with 2,296 pumps and 874 special appliances currently in service).

Another 2,500 will make up 331 specialist breathing apparatus rescue teams and 59 rescue equipment support teams.

About 6,500 will be involved in command and control and administration.

The ageing Green Goddesses (proper name: Bedford RLHZ) have a top speed of 50mph and lack most of the specialised equipment of modern, faster engines.

Prospect of war

Privately, senior officials have admitted that fighting fires is the last thing the armed forces need to be doing as war with Iraq looms.

"It's a major preoccupation", one very senior Whitehall source said.

With almost 10% of the army's troop strength possibly tied up for months, MoD sources say the strike could limit the number of soldiers available to support any American-led invasion of Iraq.

"Fresco impacts on our ability to provide the largest scale of support, but we can still offer significant forces," a defence source said.

However, he said it was "fortuitous" that after a period of heavy overseas commitments, many units were back on base.

In September, the MoD announced that almost 3,000 high readiness troops normally assigned to the Joint Rapid Reaction Force were being taken off fire duty to be ready for potential military operations.

Their Fresco places were taken by lower readiness units.

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21 Oct 02 | Politics
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