IF YOU lived in Peckham and your house was going to catch fire, Wednesday would have been the day. Help would have been at hand. There were more firefighters per square foot in this south London borough than in the Kuwait oilfields this time last year. They had gathered in the old Royal Arsenal Co-op building on Peckham's undistinguished high street to shoot each other in the first London Fire Brigade Laser Gun Championship.

'I'm looking forward to having that lot from Paddington,' said one officer before battle started.

'Yeah,' agreed his team-mate. 'Pity we're not using real guns.'

The upper floors of the Co-op building, where Victorian ladies once bought corsets and haberdashery, were converted about 18 months ago into Lazerdrome, a centre for hi-tech cowboys and indians. Here local youths zap and pow each other through a labyrinth of darkened plywood alleys and chipboard walkways, surrounded by clouds of dry ice.

'It's dark and fumey in there,' said one of the Lazerdrome staff, indicating the door to the arena where the shooting was to take place. 'Firemen should be well used to that.'

In Lazerdrome's foyer - or the 'chill-out zone' as it is known to regulars - the teams gathered in huddles to discuss tactics. Some looked apprehensive, no one had played before. Well, almost no one.

'The team from Cent Ops got here early,' an agitated officer from Paddington confided in Derek Coleman, the event's organiser. 'They've already played some members of the public. I think you ought to know that. I think that constitutes cheating.'

'You could say it's competitive,' explained Derek when the unhappy Paddington officer had gone away. 'We've got teams from all sections of the brigade, administration staff as well as uniformed officers. I think the uniformed types definitely like to think of themselves as a little bit superior.'

The teams of representatives from sections such as Northern Area, Central Operations and the finance department at brigade headquarters had, for easy identification, given themselves names like Aliens, Skulls and Warriors.

'I didn't know you were a Predator,' said one female officer, greeting an old friend. 'We've got to play you in a minute.'

Every 20 minutes or so an announcement was made over the public address system, calling the firefighters into action: 'Predators and Mechanics please, Predators and Mechanics please.'

When called, the nervous competitors passed from the chill-out zone through a door marked 'Radio Active, Danger' into the 'Briefing Room'. Here one of the dermatologically challenged youths who staff Lazerdrome

instructed them on how to play. Each competitor was provided with a gun and a complex backpack arrangement, which, once it was strapped on, gave the player the appearance of a sort of Fifties robot.

'I feel a right turtle in this lot,' said one young officer with gelled hair as he strapped himself into his backpack. 'Glad me mates down the pub can't see me, like.'

The idea of the game is to fire your laser at an opponent's gun, back or front pack. You can tell who is on which side, because lights on the packs flash green or red. Each time you hit someone, you score points. If you are hit, your gun is put out of action for five seconds and you lose points.

'What happens if you shoot someone on your own team?' a female Predator asked.

'It won't register,' said the


'Thank God for that,' she replied, pointing at a colleague. 'She'd love to shoot me in the back.'

'Stab you, more like,' sniggered her team-mate.

Lazerdrome'S fighting arena, about the size of a large discotheque, must be the only place in Britain giving a public performance of Jeff Wayne's unlamented sci-fi opera War of the Worlds, played inexplicably loudly over the public address system. Occasionally, the sound of Anthony Hopkins's recorded voice drifted from the PA - intended, presumably, to add a chill to the dark and smoke-filled atmosphere.

To an impartial spectator it looks easy in there. But for a competitor, once the adrenalin starts to pump like a fire hydrant, things begin to look very different. In the early games it was evident that

the firefighters' training did

not give them an in-built advantage. All was chaos in that

smoke and darkness. Nobody really knew what to do or whom to shoot.

'They're useless, bloody useless,' smirked Paul, a veteran player, who was acting as a marshal for the day. The marshals treated their game with a seriousness that would embarrass even the cheat-spotter from Paddington. They wore battle fatigues and had stickers on their foreheads saying 'Psycho', 'Killer' or, more alarmingly, 'God'. One even wore a full-face balaclava of the sort that is fashionable down the Falls Road.

'Look at them,' added Paul, pointing at a man silhouetted against a strobe light, his backpack speckled with laser beams. 'They haven't a bloody clue.'

Paul may have been full of scorn for the beginners, but he had a point. After 20 minutes of hard shooting, the two teams he was watching emerged from the arena, sweating and wheezing, and gathered round the little television monitors in the chill-out zone which indicated who had won and which players were the top shots.

'Were we red or green?' asked one Mechanic as the results came up on the screen.

'Green,' replied her colleague firmly. 'No, red. No, green.'

'Did we win, then?'

'Yes. No. Dunno.'

The competition was, ostensibly, part of Project 347 - the London Fire Brigade's attempt to raise pounds 100,000 for research into cystic fibrosis ('I don't know why it's called Project 347,' said Mr Coleman. 'Everything's automatically given a number in the fire service.')

Fund-raising is traditionally big in fire circles. 'There's a lot of rivalry among chiefs about whose brigade raises the most money for charity,' explained Steve, from Central Operations, the strategic planning department. 'We hand out certificates for stations. You'd be amazed, some little tin-pot station in the middle of nowhere can often raise thousands.'

Every officer at the Lazerdrome had been sponsored for a minimum of pounds 10, and some had raised more than pounds 100. Steve had sponsored himself. As a reward for their charitable endeavour, the prize for the winning team was to do battle with cast members of London's Burning, the television drama about a fire station. The London's Burning team was easily identifiable, incidentally: off-duty ersatz firefighters wear Timberland boots, whereas the real thing wears trainers of no great pedigree.

The Central Operations Aliens did not see much of a reward in playing the actors. Opinions were divided among the team as to the programme's merits. Some thought it was 'a load of crap', others were less polite.

'Well,' said Steve. 'I suppose we look on it from an operational point of view, and some of the things that happen on the programme just wouldn't happen.'

'I hate it,' added another player. 'The issues it raises aren't anything to do with real firefighting. I mean, that old girl who used to be in it, what was her name, Josie? Looked like the back end of a bus. I mean that episode where she led all the blokes through the burning building. C'mon, that just wouldn't happen. You don't want too many women around you in a fire.'

BUT IN laser warfare, however, women were an asset. Less gung- ho, more interested in survival than killing, the women regularly out-scored the men. Indeed Nicky, who topped the individual scores in a couple of rounds, was one of the reasons why the Central Operations Aliens battled their way through to meet the London's Burning side in the celebrity play-off final, beating the officers from Paddington on the way.

'I think if you're firing your gun, you can't be zapped,' said Nicky, revealing her tactic. 'So I just kept my finger on it all the time.'

BEFORE the final, while the London's Burning outfit played pool and tucked into the free buffet, the Aliens gathered around a table to discuss their battle plan. One of the team members wore a sweat shirt marked '3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment', but it was Steve who issued the instructions.

'Command the high ground,' he ordered. 'Get a sort of pincer going, with Jeannette on one side, Nicky on the other and me in the middle and just sort of stay there. Chris, you run about. Teamwork, it's what you learn in the fire service.'

In the end, by a cruel twist of fate, the fictional firefighters beat their genuine counterparts comfortably. There were lots of reasons, everyone agreed. The actors had been tipped off to wear black, whereas the firefighters' white

T-shirts shone out so brightly in the almost ultraviolet light that they might as well have been carrying torches. And the London's Burning side had benefited from a private briefing by the marshals, which filled them in with several cunning little dodges, such as holding your hand in front of your pack and grabbing your opponent's gun in close combat.

As he mopped himself down after the battle, a crestfallen Steve could not believe that his team had lost to a bunch of actors.

'Still,' he said, putting a philosophical spin on his defeat, 'I'd like to see them put out a proper fire.'

(Photograph omitted)