Warming up to undergo trial by fire

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WHEN the clocks hit 9am next Tuesday morning, the first fire service strike for 25 years will begin.

In scenes not witnessed since the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79, firefighters throughout the country will go off duty, fire stations will be shut, and should a fire break out anywhere, it will be left to the Army with its outdated equipment and Green Goddess vehicles to deal with the emergency, as the public sector workers down tools in their bid for a 40 per cent pay rise.

And in the Lothian and Borders area that means that the region’s 36 fire stations and its 1000 firefighters - 308 part-time - who attend an average of 18,000 calls for help each year, could all be off-duty, no longer available to save lives, be it from a raging fire or from a car crash.

It’s not yet known just how many firefighters will strike next week, but already government and council officials are drawing up a battle plan to try to ensure the safety of more than 870,000 people over an area of approximately 2500 square miles.

The vast majority of full-time fire service personnel are members of the Fire Brigade Union, which is leading the strike. Precisely how many in the Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade voted in favour of the industrial action is not known, and neither is how many will join the picket lines - but the official contingency plans are being based on a mass walkout.

Thirteen of the brigade’s stations are manned by full-time firefighters and, assuming the strike is well supported, these will all close. Seven of these are in Edinburgh - Liberton, Sighthill, Tollcross, Crewe Toll, McDonald Road, Marionville and Newcraighall. Others include Bathgate, Livingston, Dalkeith, Galashiels, Hawick and Musselburgh.

The remaining 23 are staffed by part-time, or "retained" firefighters. Again, how many of these stay open will depend on how many retained firefighters choose to go on strike - a figure hard to gauge.

In rural England, most retained personnel are members of the Retained Firefighters Union (RFU) - vehemently opposed to the industrial action. But in the Lothian and Borders brigade, the picture is different.

More than three-quarters - around 240 - are actually in the FBU, with the rest either RFU or not in a union. Retained firefighters generally live and work in the same community, and RFU chiefs say it is a deeply felt loyalty with the people they protect that will bring them out to work next week.

But retained crews would also benefit from any pay deal struck, so there will also be an incentive for many to join their full-time colleagues on strike. Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade is currently trying to find out what level of support there will be for the strike among retained personnel.

A spokeswoman says: "We are writing to all members of the brigade to try and gauge how many will be intending to work normally. However, it will be impossible to predict how many retained firefighters will be available to work until the first day of the strike.

"We have got quite a high proportion of retained firefighters who are members of the FBU, so there’s a potential that they will go out on strike. We won’t really know which retained stations will be open until Tuesday morning.

"We are, to an extent, looking into a crystal ball. But, depending on the strength of the strike, then, yes, we will be closing all our full-time fire stations."

So with fire stations closed and firefighters on picket lines, just who will be out on the streets in the event of an emergency?

The Ministry of Defence says it is still drawing up plans to open temporary fire stations at TA centres and other armed forces properties. No further details have been released but it is understood that the Army’s divisional headquarters at Craigiehall would be used as a key centre.

But the squaddies who will fill in for the firefighters have been banned from crossing picket lines and from using the fast, hi-tech red fire engines, which reach 85mph, in case they antagonise the strikers, drawing the Army into direct dispute with the public sector workers. Instead they will be using the Army’s Green Goddesses, which are only capable of reaching 45mph and need a police escort.

And out of the 110 Green Goddesses allocated to Scotland, around 30 are expected to be available in the Lothian and Borders area - 28 fewer than the brigade’s normal fleet of fire engines. Many of the machines date back to the 1950s and come with only the most basic equipment - a pump and a 40ft ladder.

Firefighters are also normally able to draw on more than 300 sets of specialist breathing apparatus, used by personnel to get inside burning buildings, and 38 sets of hydraulic cutting gear, which are typically employed to cut people free from trapped vehicles after accidents.

The Scottish Executive and MoD have refused to say how much specialist equipment will be available in the Lothian and Borders area, although it is believed to be considerably less than what firefighters have.

According to the Home Office, though, 2500 personnel throughout the UK will receive special training in the use of hydraulic cutting equipment and breathing apparatus.

In the Lothians, the MoD has assigned 1600 armed forces personnel - the vast majority from the Army - to cover on-the-ground firefighting, specialist operations and co-ordination. The job of driving the Green Goddesses and hosing the fires will be down to the soldiers.

All the drivers already have HGV licences and, additionally, they will receive a day’s specialist training at the Defence School of Transport, at RAF Leconfield in East Yorkshire. Meanwhile, a two-day crash course has been offered for soldiers - hardly any of whom have previous firefighting knowledge - in how to operate the pumps.

And when a 999 call comes in, the emergency call will be directed to a prioritising desk manned by professional fire personnel based at Lothian and Borders Police headquarters at Fettes Avenue, who will determine and co-ordinate the Army’s response.

It is expected that a senior fire officer not on strike will attend, and be in charge of, every incident that arises. And in the case of more serious fires and road accidents, teams of Navy and RAF personnel - already trained to operate in their own "in-house" fire services - will also attend to operate any specialist breathing or cutting equipment needed.

Police say that will not cause a significant drain on resources, but privately admit it will be a strategic headache.

A spokesman says: "Since the proposal for a possible strike was first mentioned several months ago, we have had detailed meetings with both the Army and Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade to discuss what impact the strike will have. We will be putting into place contingency plans to deal with any situation that might arise."

Edinburgh City Council is still drawing up its own contingency plans and advice to the public, but its firework concert at Meadowbank on Guy Fawkes Night will still go ahead, as firefighters are not expected to be on strike that day.

The rail industry also believes that it will not be affected by the strike, following a safety review by Railtrack, the Association of Train Operating Companies, the Health and Safety Executive and Railway Safety, the rail industry’s safety watchdog. Likewise, flights should not be interrupted, as airports employ their own firefighters who are not in the FBU.

Power-generating companies are also expected to operate as normal. BNFL, which runs Britain’s nuclear power stations, has said it will keep the situation under review and shut down if safety is at risk.

However, health and safety representatives in Amicus, Unison and the RMT have raised concerns about workers in multi-storey buildings who would normally rely on the fire brigade for evacuation - although these have been dismissed by the Government as a ruse to introduce secondary picketing without breaking legislation.

However, despite detailed contingency plans being drawn up, all parties concerned accept that the level of cover will be significantly less than the fire brigade offers.

A Scottish Executive spokeswoman says: "People will still be able to dial 999 in an emergency and their call will be dealt with. But all we can say is we are advising people to be very cautious, because the system in place operated by the Ministry of Defence is not going to be the same system as provided by the fire brigade."

A spokeswoman for the MoD adds: "Everyone involved is receiving adequate training for whatever job they are doing, not to replicate the fire service - because they cannot do that - but to provide a basic emergency response with the purpose of saving human life."

A guide to the first fire service strike for 25 years

AFTER weeks of negotiation, the Fire Brigades Union voted for a series of all-out stoppages last Friday. Its general secretary, Andy Gilchrist, received an 87.6 per cent vote in favour of the strikes after talks aimed at averting the industrial action broke down.

The talks collapsed after the FBU demanded a 40 per cent pay rise that would put qualified firefighters on 30,000 a year - up from the 21,531 they currently receive.

The union believes that pay rises for its members have been falling behind those in the wider economy and blames a wage formula that was established after its last major strike in 1977-78, which links firefighters’ pay to that of the upper quarter of industrial workers.

However, the decline of manual labour has led to low rises in recent years, while the firefighters’ role and training has been expanding.

But employers - local authorities - say the hefty increase is "not affordable", and during negotiations offered four per cent. They have also offered to reform the pay formula, linking future fire service increases to rises in average earnings instead of those given to manual workers, and the Government has launched a pay review to examine the firefighters’ case. However, that won’t be published until December and has been dismissed by the FBU.

In fact, the whole deal has been rejected by the union, which is confident that it has public support for its strike action.

But critics have pointed out that the firefighters’ lot is not as unhappy as they suggest, as they have considerable perks other public sector employees don’t - such as a 48-hour week in four shifts which allows them to have a second job if they want, time-and-a-half for overtime hours, a pension which is two-thirds of their final salary and 30 days’ holiday a year.

With both sides poles apart, the result is that firefighters will go on strike for the best part of two months from next Tuesday, starting with a 48-hour stoppage.

Keep your family and home safe during the strike action

How to take extra care during the firefighters’ walkout

Make sure you have a working smoke alarm in your house to warn of the outbreak of fire. If you don’t have one - buy one. If you do, make sure the batteries are working.

Never leave pans of food or fat unattended on the cooker.

Always put a guard around your fire.

Keep heaters maintained and away from anything which could catch fire.

Check that all electrical appliances are correctly fused and in good working order.

Make sure candles, matches and cigarettes are extinguished properly.

Close all your doors at night.

Make sure you have an escape route from your home should a fire start.

If you discover a fire, call 999 and alert emergency services.

Get everyone in the house out quickly - keep low in smoke and don’t stop for valuables. Don’t go back into the house.

If your way out is blocked by fire, then close the door and pack towels or bedding to stop smoke getting in.

If you can’t get to a phone, go to a window and shout "fire" to attract attention.