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Saturday, 16 November, 2002, 05:47 GMT
Pay deal hint as first strike ends
Military fire crew
Military crews had to get by with dated equipment
The first of a series of firefighters' strikes has come to an end with union leaders hinting that a compromise could be reached over their 30,000 pay claim.

As full-time firefighters relieved their military cover after a 48-hour walk-out, all the sides involved in the dispute prepared to resume negotiations.

Fire Brigades' Union (FBU) general secretary Andy Gilchrist said his union's members would "always be prepared to look at any serious or significant offer on pay".

If anyone is going to give me better kit than I have got at the moment... then I will have it

Brigadier Robert Aitken
Every effort should be made to find a settlement before an eight-day walk-out, which is due to start next Friday, he added.

As his members returned to work, Mr Gilchrist said: "Despite the adverse media coverage we have received from many quarters we have maintained fantastic support from the public throughout this 48-hour strike."

Prime Minister Tony Blair said the forthcoming industrial action was "deeply irresponsible" and the government would do all it could to protect the public.

Earlier on Friday the government warned it would order troops to cross picket lines to access modern fire engines if public safety required it.

Firefighters' rally
Striking firefighters attended a rally in Manchester
Firefighters said they would not stop the troops, who are due to have finished training on the equipment in time for the next wave of action.

After addressing more than 300 Welsh firefighters as part of a national tour, Mr Gilchrist said he was "quite happy" to contact Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and employers to resume talks.

Mr Gilchrist denied claims that firefighters opposed modernisation and said there would have been no strike if employers had formally proposed a 25,000 deal suggested during talks.

"If that offer had been made I think we would have been in a very traditional negotiating arena, with two much closer positions," he said.

At present local authority employers say 11% over two years is still the only deal on the table.

Fire service minister Nick Raynsford, speaking on a visit to Chelsea Barracks to talk to army servicemen, said the FBU had made "a serious mistake" by leaving the original pay negotiations.

Sources in the FBU said it had been prepared to accept a 16% offer by employers in the summer but the government had vetoed it, reports BBC correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones.

Future planned strikes
22-30 November Starts/ ends 0900
4-12 December Starts/ ends 0900
16-24 December Starts/ ends 0900

Asked whether the government would consider offering firefighters a 16% pay rise now, Mr Raynsford said he did not want to talk about specific figures at this stage.

The government has refused to rule out any action if the eight-day strike goes ahead.

That could include asking the courts for a ban on strike action.

Despite the government's decision that troops should use modern equipment, one fire authority chairman has turned down a request by the military for fire appliances.

Terry Walker of Avon Fire Authority said: "It takes 16 weeks to train a firefighter and we do not know how long they are going to train the soldiers to do that job."

And one army leader said he was not prepared to put his men into any confrontational situation.

"If anyone is going to give me better kit than I have got at the moment, through the normal democratic process, then I will have it," said Brigadier Robert Aitken, in charge of the army in Wales during the dispute.

"But I'm not going to cross picket lines."

Seven dead

Throughout the course of the strike - from 1800 GMT on Wednesday to 1800 GMT on Friday - military personnel dealt with more than 2,500 emergency calls.

Green Goddess crews went to 766 emergency calls between the beginning of the strike on Wednesday and midnight on Thursday.

Seven people died during that time, including a mother and three children in a house fire in Wiltshire.

The FBU said none of the deaths could be blamed on the industrial action as firefighters had broken picket lines and would continue to do so.

The BBC's John Sudworth
"It seems that the public mood maybe changing"
BBC correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones
"There's been a subtle change in Andy Gilchrist's tone"
Fire Brigades Union leader Andy Gilchrist
"We have never been afraid of talking about modernisation"

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15 Nov 02 | Scotland
15 Nov 02 | England
15 Nov 02 | Politics
14 Nov 02 | UK
15 Nov 02 | England
15 Nov 02 | England
15 Nov 02 | Politics
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