Lorry drivers have been trained to drive fire engines during a planned strike by firefighters today.
They are among 100 stand-in firefighters who will operate 21 fire engines in Greater Manchester during the four-hour walkout.
Members of the Fire Brigades Union confirmed the national strike last week in a row over pensions – saying it was a ‘warning shot’ for the government.
The strike follows a ballot of firefighters in which almost 80 per cent voted in favour of industrial action. The government wants firefighters to work until they are 60 before receiving a full pension.
It claimed older firefighters could be moved to less physically demanding roles, but the union said only a handful of re-deployments were available, so sackings were inevitable.
Fire chiefs in the region say they are as prepared as they can be for the planned walkout, which is set to start at noon.
They say the stand-in crews, who were recruited specifically to provide cover during the strike, will attend all emergencies.
But they will not attend some non-urgent calls such as automatic fire alarms, flooding and people trapped in lifts.
On a normal day there would be between 250 and 280 firefighters on the streets of Greater Manchester and about 60 fire engines.
The replacement crews have been given three weeks training and have been issued with the kit.
The drivers who will take the wheel of fire engines have HGV licences and have been trained to drive the fire engines, to operate the blue lights and communications equipment.
County Fire Officer Steve McGuirk said: “We are as confident as it is possible to be that we have very good personnel, the same kind of people that would apply to join the fire service in normal circumstances.
“Our instructors have been incredibly professional in their approach and the personnel have thrown themselves into it. It’s as good as I think we can possibly get in the circumstances.”
The stand-in fire engine drivers will drive at normal road speeds under blue lights but will not sound their sirens and will not go through red lights. A senior firefighter will go with each crew in a response car.
Mr McGuirk said: “We will get there as quickly as possible. We have trained up these drivers as emergency fire appliance drivers and they will be using blue lights, but we will not be encouraging them to go through red lights. It is about them being more visible road users, but driving very responsibly. So there will be a bit of a delay to our response for that reason but we are still hoping we will be able to get to every incident within around ten minutes.”
Fire brigades are obliged to come up with a contingency plan in case of a strike after the Army Green Goddesses – which were previously used during strikes – were sold off by the government.
Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service says it had up to 600 applicants for the stand-in posts, who underwent a selection process. Up to 100 have now been trained and a further 100 are now undergoing training.
The fire brigade is urging members of the public to be extra vigilant during the planned strike and to ensure they have working smoke alarms in their homes.
The fire service has set up a non-emergency number for anyone who wants advice – 0800 555815 – but those with a genuine emergency should still call 999. People can also get advice from the service’s website.
Mr McGuirk said: “This not a strike of our making. It’s a strike between the government and the Fire Brigades Union, but its important that we have proper arrangements in place to safeguard the general public of Greater Manchester and that’s something that we’ve tried to do.
“What we could do is be honest and say that we haven’t got the same level of service that we would normally have and so we would ask members of the public to be extra vigilant. That means getting a working smoke alarm, make sure you know what to do when it goes off and have a fire escape plan.”