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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 15:57 GMT
Emergency 'may halt fire strike'
Army training crew
Standby fire crews would receive help in a major incident
Firefighters would leave their picket lines to respond to a major emergency such as a terrorist attack, according to the leader of the Fire Brigades Union.

Andy Gilchrist indicated that under such circumstances his members would abandon industrial action, which is due to begin at 1800 GMT on Wednesday.

The strike is scheduled to run 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
Mr Gilchrist made his comments following talks with Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott aimed at defining what help firefighters would be willing to give in the event of a major emergency.

Earlier in the day Mr Prescott's office had suggested he would be tied up with the Queen's speech and unavailable for face-to-face negotiations.

After the talks, Mr Gilchrist praised firefighters as the "ultimate humanitarians".

He said: "In the event of a catastrophic incident they would, in fact, seek to react in the best way that they possibly could.

"It is clear we will need to monitor this situation and we will be meeting again with officials from the office of the deputy prime minister.

"The deputy prime minister has also left open a contact for myself should matters arise."

Strong commitment

Mr Gilchrist confirmed the two sides had also discussed pay but did not give any details of the discussions.

The government has been pushing for a strong commitment from the unions, pointing out that a code of conduct was drawn up by the TUC more than 20 years ago for dealing with emergencies during strikes.

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

Prime Minister Tony Blair said he hoped common sense would prevail leading to the cancellation of strike action.

Speaking during the debate on the Queen's Speech, he said suggestions the government had engineered a strike were "offensive and wrong".

"We have tried our utmost to be as reasonable and generous as possible within the limitations of what is possible," he added.

The prime minister also confirmed his deputy John Prescott would make a statement in Parliament on the strikes on Thursday.

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: 4,500
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.

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.

There are fears for safety on the roads during the strike, 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 Carole Jones
"The stand-off over money continues"
Prime Minister Tony Blair
"There is no government on earth that could yield to such a claim"
Chief Inspector of Fire Services, Sir Graham Meldrum
"The main risks of fire are easily identified"

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12 Nov 02 | UK
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