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Thursday, 14 November, 2002, 01:24 GMT
Firefighters go on strike
Robert Simpson pickets alongside his father John at Peckham fire station
Some firefighters were supported by relatives
The first national firefighters' strike for 25 years has begun, with the armed forces attending hundreds of call-outs within hours.

Across the country, firefighters emerged from their stations at 1800 GMT to begin a 48-hour picket.

Green goddess in Derby
Green Goddesses have answered many 999 calls
Minutes later, Green Goddess appliances started responding to emergency calls - most minor and some false and hoax alarms.

The first fatality during the strike was a 76-year-old woman who died in hospital after being rescued from a house fire in Newtown, Powys.

And later an elderly man died following a house fire in East Lancashire.

At the fire in Wales, a Green Goddess manned by RAF personnel was first on the scene shortly followed by local full-time firefighters, despite the blaze breaking out an hour after the strike started.

According to the Fire Brigades Union, the RAF team - who were also helped by non-striking part-time firefighters - were on the scene no slower than a fire engine on a non-strike day.

In Lancashire around four hours later military personnel arrived at a house in Brierfield, near Burnley, just six minutes after the alarm was raised.

The troops, in a Green Goddess with breathing apparatus, rescued a man - who has not been named - but he later died in hospital.

Putting the public at risk is immoral

Leigh Middleton, Berkshire, UK
Elsewhere, Teesside Airport said one of its own fire engines was first on the scene of a road accident outside the airport in which one person died.

Paramedics and an ambulance crew arrived subsequently to treat four people who were injured, two seriously.

There have been fears expressed for safety on the roads during the strike, with the Green Goddesses lacking the same cutting equipment and expertise as the fire service for getting people out of vehicles.

In London more than 20 tube stations with lifts and no escalators closed and a "handful" of drivers refused to drive trains, apparently because of safety fears.

And in West Cornwall the Environment Agency said no fire crews were available to help pump out houses flooded in heavy rain.

Strike 'regrettable'

Earlier, the FBU did not respond to a last-ditch plea by Mr Prescott to call off industrial action.

Union leader Andy Gilchrist, who led a picket line in south London, said the strike's start was "regrettable"

"This is a sad day for the fire service and for the country - FBU members are 100% professional, humanitarian people," he said.

Mr Prescott had urged firefighters not to "put people and property at risk" in the row over pay.

"If they (the union) have concerns about people's safety, they have the real remedy in their own hands - don't put people's lives at risk," the deputy prime minister said.

Firefighters have 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 Bain review - commissioned by the government - of scuppering talks with local authority employers.

Picket line at Lambeth, south London
Picket lines formed outside stations
Shortly before the strike began, Mr Prescott hinted that modernisation of the fire service could make extra cash available to increase the current offer of 11% after two years.

"It may be 11%, or even more, certainly not less" he said.

Mr Gilchrist - who said he had not been told of any extra cash - predicted picket lines would be broken in the case of a catastrophe such as a terrorist attack.

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

Mr Blair earlier told the Commons "no government on earth" could conceded to a wage claim of 40%.

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
Downing Street's civil emergency committee, Cobra, also met on Wednesday - 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 over the next 48 hours.

As well as the emergency cover being provided by the armed forces, thousands of retained firefighters are also available, since they have opposed strike action.

In an isolated case, six full-time firefighters at Spalding in Lincolnshire defied the strike and continued working,

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

Three other eight-day strikes are planned for before Christmas.

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 know their first strike for 25 years is a desperate gamble"
Prime Minister Tony Blair
"There is no government on earth that could yield to such a claim"
Andy Gilchrist, firefighters' union leader:
"The offer was not substantial or significant"

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