Only 12,500 military personnel some with as little as five weeks' training will be available to replace 35,000 frontline firefighters in the event of national strikes.
An internal government paper obtained by The Independent reveals that 19,000 personnel could be mobilised, but 6,500 will be backroom and administrative staff. It also discloses that training for the replacement crews began on 28 August six days before negotiations between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and local authorities broke down.
The document says emergency cover would be "much more limited" than that provided by civilian firefighters, who undergo four years' training before they qualify. Civilian staff receive 14 weeks' instruction before they are even considered to be at probationary standard.
The paper says: "Drivers and basic crew only require a short training package because of the simple nature of the equipment and the basic level of cover given."
The document, which comes in the form of a "Q and A", is meant for military officers and civilian managers who will liaise with them.
It said the 827 Green Goddess fire engines, which are nearly 50 years old, are "inevitably inferior" to the 3,170 appliances they will replace.
In the case of chemical spills, the escape of radioactive substances and major industrial or transport disasters, the paper admits a strictly limited capability. The military will concentrate on saving lives, it says.
Another memo on what Royal Navy staff should take to firefighting courses read like "advice to little boys going to cub camp", a fire service source said. They are told to bring washing kit, a windproof jacket and a spare towel.
Andy Gilchrist, the FBU general secretary, said: "Instead of organising an alternative fire service, the Government ought to be resolving the dispute. The replacement service will be totally inadequate, but we have not got an issue with the poor sods who are forced to do it."
The union predicts an overwhelming vote against a 4 per cent "interim" offer. The union wants a pay rise of nearly 40 per cent. Referring to the fact that possible military involvement in Iraq might reduce the degree of cover still further, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence, said: "We shall cross that bridge when we come to it. Given developments over the last 24 hours, involvement in Iraq is not going to be tomorrow if at all."
Balloting on strike action begins on 27 September.
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