UK firefighter dispute 2002–2003

UK firefighter dispute 2002–2003

The 2002-2003 UK firefighter dispute began when the UK firefighters union, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), voted to take strike action in an attempt to secure a better salary. The FBU demanded a 39 percent increase in pay, which would have brought the average firefighter's wage (at the time) to around £30,000, it balloted its members for a strike in late 2002, the industrial action began in November. It was the first nationwide firefighters' strike in the UK since the 1970s. [ [ BBC News Website: Fire strike 'would threaten Iraq action', 5 Sep 02, (accessed 11 Oct 07)] ]

The strike came as part of a wave of industrial action in Britain, which began with the council workers' strike in July of the same year, and continued with other events. For example, 95% of the UK's postal workers voted for industrial action. [,11489,839887,00.html - Retrieved: May 29, 2007]

trike periods


Green Goddess emerging from Wellington Barracks in November 2002.] The first few weeks of the planned action were postponed while negotiation took place. The first period, a two day strike, began at 18:00 hrs GMT, on Wednesday 13 November and ended at 18:00 on Friday 15 November. In the event that reconciliation could not be brokered, further industrial action was planned. [ - Retrieved: May 29, 2007]

The armed forces provided emergency cover during the strike, using vintage Green Goddess engines, and modern red fire appliances as part of Operation Fresco. The armed forces also fielded small breathing apparatus rescue teams (BART) and rescue equipment support teams (REST) headed by professional firefighters of the RAF and staffed by specially trained members of all three services. [ - Retrieved: May 29, 2007]

This cover was barely sufficient, and the strike put lives at risk. Each side placed the responsibility entirely with the other; the FBU said that their employers' failure to meet their demands was the cause of the strike. Many feared that lives would be lost in fires because of a lack of a prompt response by emergency services. There were numerous examples of striking firefighters responding to emergency calls from the picket line and several rescues were made in this way, however there were also many instances where the armed forces were refused help or equipment by the FBU despite the possible risk to life.Fact|date=May 2007


The first few weeks of the planned action were postponed while negotiation took place. The FBU rejected an offer that would amount to 11 percent over two years from a review body headed by Sir George Bain, and were unwilling to accept reforms to their working conditions. The FBU was widely criticised for its initial demand for a 40 percent pay-rise for both firefighters and support workers; indeed, it refused to abandon this demand despite mounting public disquiet concerning the FBU's stance.Fact|date=May 2007

On March 19, 2003, leaders of the FBU and negotiators for the local authority employers reached a provisional agreement based on a three year pay settlement and an understanding that modernisation measures would be subject to some measure of local negotiation. To the surprise of many observers, this was voted down by local area FBU representatives the following day.Fact|date=May 2007

On June 12, 2003, the dispute ended with the firefighters accepting a pay deal worth 16 percent over three years linked to changes to working conditions.Fact|date=May 2007

Tensions were raised again in 2004, when the FBU and local authority employers clashed over whether the deal brokered in 2003 was being honoured. However, this round of negotiations was settled without recourse to industrial action in August of that year. [ - Retrieved: May 29, 2007]

Public support

Many, including the firefighters themselves, believed that the British public were largely supportive of the firefighters, and saw the government as intransigent and prepared to squander billions on supporting US war efforts while underpaying public servants. For example, the FBU branch secretary at Sale fire station in Greater Manchester said that the strike received a "tremendous amount of support from the public... [it] has been fantastic." [ - Retrieved: May 29, 2007]

Many British trade unions, such as the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, expressed solidarity, particularly at a rally on September 2.

While public respect for firefighters had generally been high, some members of the public resented what they perceived to be an attempt by the firefighters to abuse their position for financial gain, and regarded their apparent willingness to put others' lives at risk as a form of extortion.Fact|date=May 2007

The head of the Fire Brigades Union at the time was Andy Gilchrist.

Criticisms of the firefighters' claims

A central tenet of the firefighter's claims was that their level of pay did not reflect the risks inherent in their day-to-day activities. However, a study in the "Lancet" found firefighting to be the 23rd most dangerous occupation after common occupations such as refuse collectors, builders, lorry drivers, and farm workers. This is due largely to the advances in training and health and safety pushed for by the FBU. This study was based on official figures, although quite old ones, dating from 1979-1980 and 1982-83.Fact|date=May 2007Roberts SE in Lancet 2002 Aug 17;360(9332):543-4 “Hazardous occupations in Great Britain”

Critics also said that the firefighters' claim that their wage was unfair was also damaged by Professor Bain's report which observed that there were roughly 40 applicants for every firefighter's job advertised, indicating that the pay was more than sufficient. However, in response to this last point, the FBU said that only one in 25 of those applicants were suitable for the post.Fact|date=May 2007


The first fatal incident was in Newtown, Wales, one hour after the start of the walkout on November 13 2002. An RAF Green Goddess team was sent to the incident and arrived within nine minutes. Firefighters left their picket lines to assist and helped the RAF crew to rescue 76-year-old Violet Davies from her smoke-filled bedroom and out of the house. She was treated by paramedics at the scene, but later died in hospital. According to the Fire Brigades Union, the RAF team were on the scene no slower than a fire engine on a non-strike day. The Fire Brigades Union, said it appeared the woman's death would not have been avoided even if a regular fire crew had been the first on the scene. [ - Retrieved: May 29, 2007]

On November 14, 2002, an 86-year-old man named Evan Davies, died in a house fire. His sheltered housing was half a mile away from a striking fire station where the firemen were supposed to be picketing, with an automatic fire alarm tied into a national control centre. It took twenty minutes for a Green Goddess to reach him from its base seven miles away. Fact|date=May 2007

Typically, 600-700 people die each year in fires in the UK.Fact|date=May 2007

ee also

*Fire service in the United Kingdom
*Independent Review of the Fire Service


External links

* [ Independent Review of the Fire Service, at FRSOnline]
* [ Fire Brigades Union]
* [ UK government "UK resilience" fire strike information]
* [ "Fire strike on as pay talks fail"] BBC News article on original dispute
* [ Operation Fresco]
* [ The Firefighters dispute] In-depth BBC News feature
* [ Lancet] (requires free registration; to find the article mentioned above, search for "dangerous occupations")
* [ "Deaths during Fire Strike"] BBC News article covering the deaths during the strike.

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