Green Goddesses and a history of fire service strikes

Firefighters have voted to go on strike for the first time in 20 years.

Colin Mackay: Green Goddesses patrolled streets during previous Fire Brigades Union strikes Getty Images

Firefighters have voted overwhelmingly to go on strike for the first time in 20 years.

The result of the ballot comes exactly a week after a fire at Jenners department store in Edinburgh cost firefighter Barry Martin his life as four of his colleagues were treated in hospital.

I remember the first firefighters strike in 1977. The army was called in to cover with soldiers in their Green Goddesses; old fire engines from the 1950s.

They felt like museum pieces even in the 70s. I remember one being called out to a chimney fire in a house in Clackmannan, not far from the primary school. At lunchtime we all hurried round the corner to see it. Once the soldiers had dealt with the fire, they had to start the Green Goddess with a hand crank in the front.

At that time, inflation was running at 16% and the Fire Brigades Union eventually settled for a pay rise of 10%, taking the average salary from £3700 to £4000.

Now inflation is running at around 10% and firefighters have rejected a 5% pay offer. They say the value of their pay has fallen by more than 10% over the last ten years, costing them £4000.

The Green Goddesses were still around in 2002/03 when firefighters last went on strike, rejecting an 11% offer before eventually accepting a 16% deal over three years.

Since then, there has been a deal for armed forces to use proper fire engines in the event of another strike. There will now be ten days of negotiations to determine levels of cover and potential informal agreements for striking firefighters to return to work in the event of a major incident.

Firefighters’ pay is negotiated at a UK level. They have rejected 5%, but the UK Government doesn’t look like shifting on public sector pay.

Last week’s fire at Jenners and, just after new year, at the New County Hotel in Perth show the risks firefighters face every day when they go to work, the sacrifices they and their families make and the reliance we all have on them. 20 years ago, it took more than six months to get a deal, let’s hope it doesn’t take that long this time, although I don’t see either side moving soon.

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