Firefighters issue an ultimatum on national strike

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Firefighters raised the prospect of a national strike yesterday by issuing a 10-day ultimatum over a new recruitment policy that many brigades consider to be motivated only by the need to meet Home Office targets on racial and sexual equality.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) announced it was days away from a country-wide walkout over a contentious policy that would see "direct entry" for hundreds of managers who had no experience in the fire service. Senior officers admit the strategy will encourage more women and ethnic minority recruits.

The union's warning raised the prospect of nationwide chaos similar to that which has already engulfed Merseyside, where 1,400 firefighters are striking on the issue. So far, the stoppages have cost the local authority £1.6m in eight days. It was forced to call in the army to provide emergency cover in a fleet of 50-year-old Green Goddess trucks.

The initial eight-day strike on Merseyside, which ended at 9am last Saturday, was characterised by a record number of "nuisance" calls to army crews – 300 in its first day. A nine-year-old boy has been questioned by police this week about nine of them. In all, the army received 2,223 calls and a fleet of 35 Green Goddesses, with a top speed of 35mph, attended 720 incidents.

The fire service, which has been accused of sexism, homophobia and racism after a recent inquiry by the Fire Service Inspectorate in England and Wales, is keen to increase the number of women and ethnic minorities in many forces. Merseyside employs only five female firefighters and four non-whites out of a workforce of 1,350.

But union leaders, who claim that all officers must have operational experience, are angered by reports of plans to elevate two women on Merseyside, who have no practical experience, to the rank of Assistant Divisional Officer. It is understood that the women are a nurse and a counsellor in the brigade.

Yesterday, the FBU announced it was writing to the chairman of the National Joint Council – the fire service's employer-employee forum – asking for acknowledgement that Merseyside Fire Authority is in the wrong in its local dispute with crews.

Andy Gilchrist, the FBU general secretary, said during a meeting of the union's national executive, coincidentally in Liverpool, that he could not rule out a national strike.

As local talks resumed yesterday afternoon, with the aim of ending a second eight-day stoppage, union leaders said the Merseyside Fire Authority had ignored a National Joint Council ruling over plans to recruit civilian staff for senior posts.

National FBU officials rejected the assertion of Malcolm Saunders, the Chief Fire Officer, that the move would encourage more women and ethnic minority applicants.

Mr Gilchrist said that, should the National Joint Council fail to respond favourably, a meeting would be held in Liverpool on 3 August to call for "national industrial action in support of our Merseyside members". Mr Gilchrist said the national executive of the FBU, which has 50,000 members in Britain, had discussed both the Merseyside dispute and its national dimensions.

During the previous Merseyside firefighters' strike five years ago, Mark Shuttleworth, a student aged 25, died in a blaze at his flat in Toxteth, Liverpool, when two Green Goddesses took eight minutes to arrive. A regular fire engine from the nearest station would normally have been at the scene in five minutes.