The military struggled to cope in 1977

Barrie Clement
Wednesday 13 November 2002 01:00
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The first nationwide firefighters' strike in 1977 plunged the country into a state of emergency and cost the lives of several civilians and servicemen.

Industrial action, prompted by a pay dispute, started on 14 November and lasted through Christmas and the New Year, when it became clear that the stand-in service was struggling.

More than 10,000 members of the Army, Navy and RAF were drafted in. Part-time firefighters who were not involved in the dispute also helped out the servicemen and women, manning an already outdated fleet of Green Goddesses.

As fire crews stood on the picket lines, people were encouraged to keep buckets of sand and water at home and brigades issued safety guides to concerned householders.

Despite the best efforts of the stand-in military members, criticism grew that they were ill-equipped to deal with the situation. People were shocked when two servicemen died after their vehicle overturned in Manchester.

In Liverpool, a young woman, Elaine Johnson, lost both of her daughters and her father when their house caught fire. She remains convinced that her children would still be alive if there had not been a strike and described the Green Goddesses as "hopeless".

In Scotland, 27 people died during the strike and 189 were injured – one third of them Army firefighters.

By the end of the third week, an average of three people a day had died in fires, although the Home Office insisted the death toll was "normal" for the time of the year.

The strike ended amid bitter infighting among Fire Brigades Union (FBU) activists. Firefighters' leaders were accused of a sell-out by their more militant members. Terry Parry, leader of the FBU during the nine-week stoppage, persuaded delegates to call an end to the industrial action at a stormy meeting in Bridlington. Afterwards, in freezing weather, fist fights broke out on the promenade between FBU members.

Despite considerable support from the public, the union had failed to budge the Callaghan Government from the wage rise offered at the start of the strike. The union had demanded 30 per cent, but was forced to accept 10 per cent.

In hindsight, the settlement was a triumph for the FBU. Ministers had conceded a pay mechanism that would automatically tie firefighters' wages to the top 25 per cent of male manual workers, which was thought to have ended the need for national pay strikes.

Mr Parry was so pleased he bought himself a greyhound to celebrate.

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