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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 13:11 GMT
Countdown to fire strike
Fire training
Soldiers in Ripon, Yorkshire, practice fire drills
Emergency plans are being finalised to deal with the UK's first national firefighters' strike for 25 years which starts on Wednesday.

The industrial action is due to begin at 1800 GMT and continue for 48 hours until 1800 GMT on Friday.

Hundreds of ageing armed forces "Green Goddess" fire engines are on standby to provide basic fire and rescue cover.

Cover will be provided by ageing army Green Goddesses
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) leader Andy Gilchrist is meeting Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and government officials to discuss what help firefighters would be willing to give in the event of a major emergency.

On his way to the meeting, Mr Gilchrist said there was "every possibility" picket lines would be abandoned to help deal with an serious incident.

Downing Street's civil emergency committee, Cobra, is also convening -albeit without ministers - to run through contingency plans.

The Ministry of Defence says 18,500 members of the armed forces are on standby to provide emergency cover when firefighters walk out.

But one of the senior officers involved in the operation has admitted the service will not replicate that usually provided by local fire brigades.

Fire cover
Number of armed forces personnel on standby: 18,500
Green Goddess fire engines: 827
Fire engines normally covering UK: 4,069
Temporary fire stations: 429
Brigadier Roger Brunt said: "We are not trying to compete in terms of providing a fire service with what is normally available.

"We are doing our best with the resources we have got to provide coverage."

On Tuesday, firefighters angrily rejected an 11% offer, combined with changes to working practices, which had been recommended by an independent review.

The firefighters, who want 40%, accused the review - commissioned by the government - of scuppering talks with local authority employers.

John McGhee, national officer for the FBU, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme there could be no hope of co-ordinated, professional cover by the armed forces during the strike.

He said: "If the government want to avoid the loss of life during the fire service strike, then they have to put forward a proper offer on pay."

Mr McGhee said sitting down and discussing the response to large-scale emergencies was "insulting" since firefighters believed every call was important.

Resources 'limited'

As well as the emergency cover being provided by the armed forces, thousands of retained firefighters - who staff rural stations on a part-time basis - are also available, since they have opposed strike action.

Andy Gilchrist, FBU general secretary
FBU leader Andy Gilchrist believes the government wants a strike

Brigadier Brunt, speaking at Chelsea Barracks in London where service personnel were preparing for the strike, said: "A lot of people have been training very hard for this, and are determined to give it their best shot."

In event of an emergency, the public is urged to call 999 as usual.

Members of the military, police and senior fire officers will speak to them and arrange appropriate cover.

Dr John Reid, chairman of the Labour Party, told the Today programme he hoped the FBU would stop being "unreasonable", even at this late stage.

He said: "There is an offer on the table which is substantial compared to anything that has been offered to other public sector workers."

The BBC's industrial affairs correspondent Stephen Cape said there were no plans for army personnel to cross picket lines in order to use firefighters' vehicles, despite the fact that they are better equipped.

He said there were three possible scenarios in which firefighters might break their strike to attend a incident.

These included a major vehicle pile-up, a large fire possibly in a factory and a fire where life was in danger.

'Bullying tactics'

There are also fears for safety on the roads, with the army lacking the same cutting equipment and expertise as the fire service for getting people out of vehicles.

The RAC Foundation warned that without the fire service to clear up the aftermath, any accident could block roads for a much longer time than usual.

Strike dates
13-15 November Starts and ends at 1800 GMT
22-30 November Starts/ ends 0900
4-12 December Starts/ ends 0900
16-24 December Starts/ ends 0900
Three other eight-day strikes are planned for before Christmas.

The local authority employers say they will not give in to "bully boy tactics", and insist their offer is a good one.

Sir George Bain, who headed the independent review, said both sides would have to return to the negotiating table, whether or not there was a strike.

He said his proposals formed the "only basis" for discussions.

Fire dispute at a glance
PayBain Review Working Practices
Fire Brigades UnionFirefighters are calling for a 40% rise FBU leader: "He has effectively wrecked the pay talks."FBU leader: "Modernising the service should not be an excuse to undermine the union."
EmployersThe employers have offered them an interim 4% riseThey have warmly welcomed the Bain report endorsing its "vision" of the future"Any increase above 4% would have to be linked to modernisation and supported financially by the government."
Bain Review Recommends a 4% rise in 2002 followed by 7% in 2003"I think in the longer term it provides the only basis on which any kind of rational and equitable deal can be done."Calls for reform and end to overtime ban and for more flexible working practices in return for a raise
Fire Service Minister"We made it clear that if they [the employers] went beyond 4% they would have to fund that." "I believe most fair-minded people would regard it as a good basis for the future terms of the fire service."
"Investment in public services must go hand in hand with improvement and modernisation."
The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones:
"They're preparing for a lengthy dispute"
Chief Inspector of Fire Services, Sir Graham Meldrum
"The main risks of fire are easily identified"

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13 Nov 02 | UK
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