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The first national firefighters' strike in the United Kingdom for 25 years began on November 13, 2002 with a 48-hour stoppage, presenting the Labour government of Tony Blair with its most serious industrial crisis to date after the Fire Brigades Union rejected a proposed pay deal.

The union, led by Andy Gilchrist, demanded the current average salary for a firefighter should be raised from some £22,000 to £30,000. That's 40% as the government put it, or as the strikers' placards said, £8.50 an hour. A report assembled by Sir George Bain had offered 11% over two years, but on condition that the fire service altered its shift patterns from the two-days-and-nights-on, four days off pattern which allowed many firefighters to hold down second jobs.

Or maybe that 'allowed' should read 'compelled', since the FBU argued that their salaries as they are come nowhere near what's needed to support a family, least of all in London where property prices have excluded firefighters, policemen and other Angels of Middle England from the market. If Smokey Bear were a London firefighter, he'd be commuting between New Mexico and SoCal.

The firemen added that since a comprehensive pay deal was agreed after the strike in 1977, they routinely handle more sophisticated equipment and deserve to be paid as professionals rather than - as they were classed in 1977 - manual workers.

Emergency cover during the dispute was provided by the army with its 827 Green Goddesses, military backup fire engines dating from 1953 and lacking breathing apparatus or radios. (Never fear: the squaddies are equipped with mobile phones.) TV news vox pops during the strike were repeatedly asked what had happened to the hundreds of fire engines the brigades must have got through in the last fifty years; BBC objectivity guidelines presumably precluded them from replying, 'Tory privatisation.'

Troops, and part-timers belonging to the Retained Firefighters Union not involved in the strike, attended well over a thousand emergencies in the first two days alone, not least a blaze at a fireworks factory in Manchester, but were plagued by a horrendous number of hoax calls. (The little brats in telephone boxes, unfortunately, are now equipped with mobile phones too.)

Predictions that public transport would in most cases run as normal began to look optimistic before the strike was 24 hours old, although it should be borne in mind that 20-minute delays across the overland rail network could hardly have been called abnormal before Mr Gilchrist and the boys did their work, or rather, didn't do it.

The 22 deepest stations on the London Underground were closed in case they could not be evacuated in time, and should you be reading this the instant it's been posted and still trying to get home, large sections of the Piccadilly Line were shut too after a hundred train drivers cited safety fears and refused to come into work. No such considerations applied to the District Line, which is almost close enough to the surface for workmen in Kensington High Street to have to take special care with their pneumatic drill.

Of more concern to much of the public were uncertainties over whether firemen would return to work in the event of a major incident or terrorist attack. (This in the week where the Home Office 'mistakenly' issued a detailed terror alert and an amaretto manufacturer had to be dissuaded from pumping almond scent into the corridors on the Tube.) Sir Michael Boyce, the chief of the defence staff, also warned that deployments to replace striking firemen could affect British capability to contribute to any war on Iraq, although it's debatable how many Britons would be kept awake overnight about that one.

The Labour minister John Reid castigated firemen the night before the strike in similar terms, and a voluntary agreement remains far from finalised, although Gilchrist encouragingly maintains that the pay offer was rejected in the first place because of his members' commitment to saving lives.

Government advice, via Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, in the event of fire was to 'Get out, stay out, and call 999,' raising the question of what they expect the public to do in conditions of normal fire cover. Pull up deckchairs, perhaps, and break open the marshmallows.

After the FBU judged a 16% compromise deal inadequate, the first eight-day strike began on November 22, 2002, introducing a few dozen more modern red fire engines rounded up from training centres and the like. Predictably, these became nicknamed the Red Goddesses, making British civil defence sound more and more like a role-playing game by the minute.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, pitched in during the strike week by wheeling out his favourite refrain of fiscal prudence, warning that the 40% the firemen demanded would lead the rest of the public sector to call for the same and invoke Brown's favourite bogeyman, inflation.

As the Goverment dug in its heels, the dispute appeared to intensify in the same week when Prescott hinted that the modernisation required in return for any pay increase might have to include the loss of up to 11,000 jobs. Although this referred to not replacing 11,000 firefighters who would shortly retire, headline-speak translated it into a more serious threat with great ease.

With more eight-day stretches pencilled in if a mutually acceptable pay deal couldn't be found, firefighters looked set for quite a few more nights on the picket line standing around the brazier. (One may wonder who they gonna call if one of those gets out of hand.)

In such a scenario, troops could even be ordered to commandeer fire engines behind the picket lines, although the soldiers would be unlikely to have received a sufficient level of training to handle the tenders. And don't expect ITV to pick up the new series of London's Burning any time soon.

Clashes on the picket lines certainly marked the strike in 1977, which lasted for two months until firemen eventually accepted the government's offer of a 10% pay rise. Threatening, as a worst case, more disruption than the fuel crisis of 2000, in which truckers protesting at the price of fuel blockaded refineries for nearly a fortnight, Blair's response may even come to define his government's relationship with the unions in the way that Margaret Thatcher's is known for her treatment of the 1983-84 miners' strike.

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