Hospitals have set up emergency teams to free people from crashed vehicles during national strikes by firefighters which could begin in seven days' time.
Officials at the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said yesterday that NHS trusts in many areas had set up the volunteer surgical groups because medical authorities lacked confidence in the ability of auxiliary fire crews to extract victims from the wreckage at road accidents. The military personnel who are preparing to man the 50-year-old Green Goddess fire engines that may have to provide cover during strike action are allegedly unable to operate the cutting gear used by local authority firefighters.
The preparations are part of a strategy worked out by a Whitehall committee which dealt with crises such as 11 September and the fuel blockades of two years ago.
Officials at the FBU said they would announce a massive vote today in favour of nationwide walkouts over a demanded 40 per cent pay increase to place firefighters on a minimum of £30,000.
The union has rejected an interim offer of 4 per cent and has refused to acknowledge the authority of a review of pay and modernisation in the service backed by the Government and employers, which reports in mid-December. The stoppages could last up to eight days, starting from next Friday.
The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and local authority employers made last-minute pleas yesterday for the FBU to postpone strikes and wait for the result of the review. Mr Prescott said industrial action would be damaging and put lives in danger. Green Goddesses would not be able to provide the kind of service the brigades offered, he said. "We will put troops in to provide emergency cover but it will not be a replacement service. I believe the firefighters should not go on strike, as do the public."
Andy Gilchrist, the FBU's general secretary described Mr Prescott's comments as astonishing. "He led the rush by cabinet ministers only last year to vote themselves a 40 per cent rise," he said. "We have been placed in an appalling position. All the Government has to do is start genuine pay talks. It is that simple."
Mr Prescott said the union's claim was "fantasy" and repeated warnings that a strike would fuel inflation and push up mortgage payments.
Local authority employers said that if the FBU's pay demand was repeated across the public sector, the basic rate of income tax would have to rise by 20 per cent, or 3.9p in the pound.
Local fire authorities said taxpayers would not accept a 40 per cent increase. The public did not want additional government funding swallowed up in over-inflated wage demands made by the "most vocal unions in the sector", officials said in a statement.
Employers submitted their evidence to the review yesterday, including recommendations on modernising the service such as simplifying the rank structure and introducing more flexible shift systems. They also called for better working arrangements with local communities and social services to reduce the risk to life of fires.
The fire service needed better to reflect the communities it served, the employers said, complaining that 99 per cent of firefighters were male and 98.5 per cent were white.
Countering union claims that the fire service has already been modernised, the employers said working practices had been "remarkably unchanged" for the last 25 to 30 years. The union was accused of opposing the removal of restrictive practices that were making modernisation "difficult, if not impossible".
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