Blair: Army shows way for fire reforms

Andrew Grice,Barrie Clement
Saturday 30 November 2002 01:00
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The Government will demand more sweeping changes to the work practices in the fire service following an inquiry into the way the armed forces have coped during the eight-day firefighters' strike.

Ministers have been surprised by the ease with which the 19,000 military personnel have provided a service run by 55,000 firefighters. They are determined to change a shift system that allows many firefighters to have second jobs.

Firefighters across the UK ended their eight-day strike at 9am today. Picket lines were dismantled and the braziers extinguished, but only until Wednesday, when another eight-day walkout is set to begin unless progress can be made in the pay talks.

On Monday, Downing Street will publish a report drawn up by Cobra, the Government's emergency planning team, saying that the services have operated well within their capacity during the 10 days of strikes so far. The report, requested by Tony Blair, will recommend improvements to the Government's contingency plans for the new strikes threatened by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) after three hours of talks with the local authority employers broke up without agreement yesterday.

Although the Cobra inquiry will be a factual assessment of the military's operations, it is expected to pave the way for more fire resources to be switched from night time to day time, when 70 per cent of call-outs happen.

The Cobra report will also highlight the benefits of joint control centres for 999 calls with other emergency services, a move opposed by the FBU.

Mr Blair, who was heckled by striking firefighters when he visited Army and RAF teams providing fire cover in Darlington yesterday, said: "The armed forces have coped brilliantly ... We have also learnt that there are certain changes like joint control rooms, the better organisation of shift work and part-time and full-time people travelling to incidents together. These are basic changes that can very easily be done."

There were bitter exchanges over the forces' role last night after Dave Patton, the FBU's national officer, said it was a "myth" they had been coping well.

Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister, demanded an apology saying the 19,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and women had responded magnificently. "I will not have them attacked and undermined by people like Mr Patton who is not fit to lace their boots," he said.

Firefighters' leaders are expected next week to call more strikes in the new year.

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