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Thursday, 14 November, 2002, 05:20 GMT
Reluctant history makers
Picket line
Striking firefighters have had public support

After months of tense negotiations, the UK's firefighters finally went on strike on Wednesday. BBC News Online watched the walk-out at one London fire station.
With just minutes to go before 1800 GMT - the appointed time for London's 5,694 striking firefighters to stop answering emergency calls and hand over their work to just 1,600 soldiers and their aging Green Goddess engines - standing inside Kentish Town fire stations must be one of the safest places to be.

Kentish Town's strikers
Firefighters turn up the heat
"Don't start the fire yet!" says one firefighter to the colleague who just dropped a cigarette butt into a brazier being filled with wood and fuel in the empty garage. "We can't have a fire in the fire station!"

Suddenly, the great red doors of the station clatter open and the assembled members of red, white, green and blue watches symbolically stride out onto the street together. "You're taking part in history," the station's union representative, Sid Platt, tells the group.

The momentousness of what they are doing is not lost on the strikers - this is their union's first national walk-out in 25 years - but many admit that this is one chapter of history they would rather have not helped write.

Many admit that this is one chapter of history they would rather have not helped write.

"I was hoping it wouldn't come to this," says John Stylianou, who gave up a 45,000-a-year retail job for a career "helping people and saving lives".

"I keep thinking of a child stuck in a burning building while we're sitting here doing nothing."

With the brazier hauled outside and gingerly lit, the watch members busily collect petition signatures and donations from passers-by.

Drivers of buses and Porsches honk their support. Taxi drivers pull over to offer money and beer. Two bottles of whisky are handed through the window of one car.

Within minutes the petitions are nearly filled. A glance at the names suggests Kentish Town's female population is particularly sympathetic to the strikers' cause.

Finally a group of young women refuse the offer to sign up - despite the promise of a thank you sweet in return. "They've turned down firemen and chocolates. Public opinion's turning against us!"

Spirits may be high just now, says leading firefighter Paul Ford, but the strike hasn't been called "for a laugh".

"There's no fire cover for our families either, we're putting them at risk too. I checked our smoke alarm today."

Even when the strike ends on Friday night, the strikers will be counting the cost of their action.

Why should I give up a job I love because of the pay?

Firefighter John Magyar
"The money we're losing will be coming out of our Christmas pay packets and most of us have families to support and mortgages to pay."

Mr Ford says none of the stations crew can afford to live in this relatively affluent part of north London - some even find it cheaper to commute to work from homes 200 miles away.

Firefighter Kelly has four children under seven, but can't afford to leave his two-bedroom house. A former builder, he has begun work on an extension with his own hands.

"I go home shattered and start work on it. I haven't time for part-time work and it's hard to even make time for the children."

So why would anyone do a job which pays so poorly? John Magyar, who drives from his home in West Yorkshire for his shifts, gave up a better paid job after waiting three years for a fire service vacancy.

"It's a great feeling when you rescue someone, the greatest feeling in the world. Why should I give up a job I love because of the pay?"

Demonised as greedy

Many on the picket line acknowledge they won't get rich fighting fires, but feel they are overdue a "fair" and "reasonable" wage.

To back their claim, every striker seems armed with an arsenal of figures. How much hospital consultants are paid. What the Railtrack fiasco cost. The new working conditions and pay of MPs.

Tony Blair effigy at Kentish Town
The firefighters are angry with Tony Blair
The firefighters are bitter that they are being demonised as greedy and irresponsible by some politicians. They especially resent the insinuation that they are endangering a country facing a terrorist threat and a possible war with Iraq.

There is also anger at the Bain report into fire service pay, which said firefighters were delaying changes to encourage diversity in recruiting and improve efficiency.

Paul Ford says such suggestions obscure the root cause of the fire service's woes - under funding.

Bed shortages

He shows off the station's second engine, an E-reg he says would be hard-pressed to race a 50-year-old Green Goddess up the steep local hills.

In the grim accommodation block, he asks how Sir George Bain can blame firefighters for a culture discouraging to female recruits, when bed shortages mean only one of his watch's two women has to sleep in the men's dorm.

Pool table-cum-bed at Kentish Town
Pool table-cum-bed at Kentish Town
The bed shortage is so acute that even the station's pool table is more often than not covered with a mattress.

An ambulance roars past, sirens wailing. The co-driver waves to the strikers. As it takes the corner at speed, the two of the vehicle's wheels lift precariously from the road.

"This could be our first unofficial call out," says a worried picket, as the ambulance just manages to right itself.

Firefighter Sophie Cocker tells the strikers that the TV news is saying a woman has died in a fire in Wales. The report says striking crews went with the Army Green Goddess to help.

Burned out

"If something happened near here, we'd probably go to help," says firefighter Andy McLucas. "We couldn't take the engines though. That would make us scabs."

But without their equipment, what good would they be? The pickets discuss a serious house-fire extinguished earlier in the day. "If a Green Goddess had been doing it, the place would have been burned out," says Mr McLucas.

A man passes the pickets, telling them in no uncertain terms he thinks they are being "greedy".

"I feel very sorry for soldiers," says Sid Platt. "What happens if one of them dies? This is going to be a long fight, and nobody's going come out winning."

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14 Nov 02 | UK
13 Nov 02 | Wales
12 Nov 02 | UK
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