'If there's a strike, it's only a question of time before someone dies, and we'll get the blame. It doesn't rest easy with us, but we have been left no alternative...'

As Britain's 50,000 fire-fighters prepare to strike for the first time in a quarter of a century, Paul Vallely spends 24 hours with Blackburn's Blue and Green watches and discovers what life is really like as a modern fireman
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The Independent Online

There's a plaque by the entrance of the headquarters of the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service which commemorates those fire-fighters from the brigade who have died in recent years. What is striking about it is that more than half of the names are of firemen who died in the 1950s. There are only half that number in the Sixties. Then, in the Seventies, it was down again, to just three. None in the Eighties. One in 1990. And none since.

There's a plaque by the entrance of the headquarters of the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service which commemorates those fire-fighters from the brigade who have died in recent years. What is striking about it is that more than half of the names are of firemen who died in the 1950s. There are only half that number in the Sixties. Then, in the Seventies, it was down again, to just three. None in the Eighties. One in 1990. And none since.

One member of the service pointed it out to me this week as I arrived to spend a day riding a fire engine in one of the county's 40 fire stations with the aim of discovering something about what it is like to be a modern fireman – and what it is about the job that has brought the nation's 50,000 fire-fighters to the brink of their first national strike in a quarter of a century.

The plaque shows how much the job has changed, I was told. It seemed an odd thing to point out. The fact that fire-fighters rou-tinely expose themselves to highly dangerous situations is part of what so wins them the respect, and affection, of the British public. What kind of society refuses to pay a decent wage to people who risk their lives, on behalf of others, on a daily basis? Thus runs one of the key arguments for those who want to see the firemen get a substantial rise.

It was arresting, then, to have people who rush into burning buildings for a living repeatedly insist they deserve more money precisely because the job has changed – and that reckless acts of daring are now less a part of it. But we shall come on to that.

Not that an adrenalin-pumping sense of danger is not integral to the business of fighting fires even now. Even before I first heard the urgent two-toned alarm go off inside the old fire station in Blackburn, to which I had been allocated with the men and woman of Green Watch, I had had a smell of that. They wouldn't let me ride one of their appliances without getting kitted up in full fire-fighter's garb, complete with heavy boots, stiff padded trousers and jacket, and full orange helmet with visor. Just climbing into it produced an odd sensation. In part, it was an echo of some atavistic schoolboy thrill. But there was some– thing else, which tensed the mind and muscles. It felt like a latterday armour, which both prepared and protected. And, being a uniform, it hinted at a sense of belonging to a group from which you could expect support but that also expected something of you.

When the station shutter rolled upwards, the blue lights began to flash and the fire engine lurched suddenly forward at speed, it was not just my body that was jolted as we raced along the crowded street, crashing red lights, weaving onto the wrong side of the road and firing the two-tone horn at the little Fiesta that tried to race ahead of us, its driver paralysed with panic into trying to outrun the mighty juggernaut on his tail.

It would be dramatic, therefore, to begin with an account of the dash to the small terraced house from which fierce flames leapt and smoke billowed, obliterating the view of the entire street whose residents were evacuated. But that came later in the day. The everyday truth was more mundane.

Our first call was to a derelict house where children had set light to a pile of rubbish. The men pulled on hefty gloves, whose thickness seemed out of all proportion to the task in hand. "We have to watch out for hypodermics," said Steve Roberts, the fire- fighter in charge of the engine. "We often fill a 'sharps canister' with needles abandoned by druggies. And in tall blocks of flats we find them taped under the banisters in a deliberate attempt to injure fire-fighters."

Next came a call to a video shop in one of the cramped Asian districts of the town centre. "It could be tricky," said Fire-Fighter John Riley. "Video tape all goes up in seconds and gives off chemical fumes." But when we arrived not only was there no fire but no shop at the address reported.

It was a hoax. Such calls, until a few years back, constituted about half of all fire-engine turn-outs. A local awareness campaign has brought that down to about 20 per cent – that and call-tracing technology. "After a repeat hoax, the phone companies deactivate the guilty mobile phone's SIM card," said John Riley. It's a serious matter. Another fire-fighter told me about the dead body of a five-year-old boy brought out of a fire, "like a burned ragdoll", when two engines were delayed getting there, both by separate hoax calls. Men like him do not need politicians such as John Prescott to point out that people might die if fire-fighters strike.

The next call is an anti-climax, too. The summons is to a big paper mill. But when the fire-fighters arrive, making their way to the scene through huge stacks of paper and an atmosphere hot and humid with processing chemicals, the source of the fire turns out to be a bathetic toaster in the control room that had triggered the alarm.

It's 6pm when Green Watch ends its nine-hour day shift and Blue Watch takes over for the 15-hour night shift. The first call is to a rough housing estate where children have lit a bonfire. They are leaping through the flames when the tender arrives. A fire engine is no longer the symbol of authority it once was. Instead of fleeing, the children, who range from the age of nine down to two, try to dance through the spray of the hoses.

"Where's your sense of humour?" one eight-year-old urchin protests as the flames are doused. At least he didn't throw stones. All the firemen have, as they put it, been "bricked" on numerous occasions – or had fireworks thrown at them as they worked. "But we can't just let even a small fire burn, we have to put it out by law," says the man in charge, Shaun Eastham, who has been in the job for 14 years.

When the big call comes, they're ready. Mossley Street is an inner-city area of cramped two-up, two-down terraced houses. A serious fire has broken out in one. The flames are spectacular and huge amounts of smoke engulf the area. The men of Blue Watch smash down the front door and rush into the burning building. It is the classic fire-fighting scene. And yet, 40 minutes later, when the flames are doused, the job is far from complete.

Station Officer Andy Barnes is investigating the cause of the fire, which looks suspicious; the back gate and door of the empty house had been forced. Fire-Fighter John Hancock is damping down the embers in a blackened, smoking kitchen made eerie by portable arc-lights. Next door, Fire-Fighter Dave Hilliard is giving contact numbers for various social services agencies to the blind woman who lives there, while a colleague mops up pools of water. Other fire-fighters are advising the occupants of adjoining houses about smoke damage and trying to pick up information about the start of the blaze.

Some 54 per cent of the fires in Blackburn are started deliberately, by vandals, car-thieves or out-of-control children. And since a direct correlation has been shown between fire-prevention work and the number of blazes, the focus of the job is increasingly shifting to working with what Station Officer Barnes calls "crime and disorder partnerships" with community groups, Neighbourhood Watch schemes, youth workers, the local police and social services.

It works. So much so that fire-fighters give up their spare time to visit child fire-raisers to persuade them of the error of their games. Dedication to the job shines through so many aspects of the work of these men and women. They still speak, unfashionably in this age, of "serving" the public. Most have been in the job a decade or more. When they talk of the job, pride unmistakably illuminates their language. But it is in their actions that their commitment shows; the unquestioning vigour of their swift responses, their diligence in chores of preparation, the compassion with which they handle even peripheral victims. What it speaks of is an old-fashioned sense of vocation that reveals the shallowness of the analysis of those critics who say that if they feel so badly-paid they should quit and do a different job.

Yet none of this is the basis of the deep sense of being under-valued that was common to all the fire-fighters I met. After their last strike in 1977, they agreed a pay formula that they hoped would index their wages so another strike would never be necessary. Their pay was pegged to "the upper quartile of male manual workers". In those days, that meant miners, shipbuilders and carworkers. But with the decline of manufacturing industry, those highly-paid jobs have gone.

"Today, our pay is on a par with binmen and street cleaners," said Green Watch's Dave Stanley, "and we've fallen 40 per cent behind people like train drivers and policemen." And yet, as the Fire Brigades Union has argued, the job now bears no resemblance to that of the brute strength and reckless courage of the old days. There has been a shift from brawn to brain. The modern fire-fighter is more a technician than a manual labourer.

"When I started," said Steve Roberts, who has been in the service 24 years, "it was a question of rushing into a house made of brick, wood and slate, and squirting water on a horsehair mattress – the smoke from all that was carbon. Today, everything is different." Modern houses are full of plastics. Fumes and smoke are chemical. Double glazing and synthetic compounds have changed the dynamics of fire. On the roads, hazardous materials abound. Then there are constant new demands in training to deal with everything from bombs (Blackburn dealt with two IRA bombs) to anthrax (Blue Watch recently rehearsed an exercise to decontaminate 500 anthrax victims). The demands of the job have become increasingly technical and complex, to the point where government statisticians now place fire-fighters in the category "Associate Professional and Technical". Now, after years of falling behind, fire-fighters want the pay to match.

Critics of the fire-fighters say two things. They don't have to work all the time they are on duty – they can sleep or play snooker. And their shift patterns means that they can do extra work on their days off. Of the 15 hours of the nightshift when I was with them, there were about three when they were in the station, and the distribution of the call-outs meant that no one could do more than snatch a quick catnap. Mainly, they just sit and talk, read and play chess, and drink tea.

About a quarter of them, it transpired as they chatted, "went spivving", in the Blackburn vernacular. These second jobs ranged from casual decorating to domestic electrical work. One man even moonlights by working as a part-time "retained" firemen. "We work two day shifts, two night shifts and then have four days off, but we're only allowed to work the middle two," said John Riley. "If we weren't so badly paid we wouldn't do it at all," said Steve Roberts whose wife, a nurse, takes home more pay than he does.

The general sense of resentment at the way the Government has allowed them to fall behind in pay is clear. So, too, is their scepticism at the good faith of the politicians. "Blair and co voted themselves a 40 per cent pay increase last year and yet they are forcing us into a strike over it," said Blue Watch's Mark McCracken, who goes back to spot-welding on his day off. They have asked for the same amount themselves, but what is clear is that had the Government not over-ruled the employer's offer of 15 per cent earlier this year there would have been no strike threat. For what has been affronted is the fire-fighters' sense of worth, as well as their monthly household budgets.

And yet, oddly perhaps, they is no animus against the squaddies who will turn up to do their jobs if a strike does come. "They'll do their best, but they don't have the resources or the knowledge," said Fire-Fighter John Hancock, who with just five years in the job is a comparative new boy among his veteran colleagues. The talk turns to how "back draughts" can suddenly re-ignite a fire which appears to have burned out, or how a "flashover" can cause a room to burst into a mega-high-temperature fireball without any apparent warning. "The Army lads wouldn't have a hope," says one man soberly.

It is clear that they have not embarked upon a strike lightly. It has been brewing for two years. "They are now asking us to await the result of a pay review," said Fire-Fighter McCraken, "but we're cynical because there have been numerous reviews over the years. They all said we were underpaid. And every review was ignored."

Yet these are men who know all too well that 700 people die in fires and 3,000 more bodies have to be cut free from road traffic accidents every year. "On average, two people die in a fire, and 10 on the roads, every day," said Hancock. "If there is a strike, it's only a question of time before someone dies, and we'll get the blame whether they would have died anyway or not. It doesn't rest easy with us. We don't want to strike, but we have been left no alternative." And then the fire-bell rang and he sprang back into action.