& opinion


Anyone up before nine o'clock on Wednesday the 29th January will have seen the first of many snowstorms that would mark the day. Unless they had any extremely pressing business to take care of in the Preston Circus area, however, they will not have seen the firefighters dismantle their picket line. I myself was quite glad to have avoided the worst of the weather too, by paying the strikers a visit the night before.

The eight-day strike last year received intense media coverage. Recently, however, with news of an increasing possibility of war, the firefighters' strike has been neglected by the British press. My explanation that had not come to do an overtly political article was well met by those gathered around the obligatory brazier. As found out later, the fact that I was attempting to write with a local angle in mind stood in my favor. The strikers have become wary of earlier portrayals of their actions, and feel that the press had it in for them at first. This explained why the fireman I interviewed wanted to stay anonymous.

The decision to strike seems to have been made unanimously at the station. 'We're all union members, we all had a vote, and we voted to go out and strike.' It was similarly supported by the rest of the county stations, including Hove, Eastbourne and Hastings. The picket line is manned according to the firefighters’ normal weekly rota. Due to coincidence, Red Watch covered both nights (6pm until 9am) of the 48-hour strike. They are not alone, however, and are continually talking to various members of the public and firefighters who have come in off-shift.

To avoid the incessant noise of people honking in support interrupting my recording, I was led inside. 'Inside' proved to be the fire escape. During the strike, the employees aren't allowed in the station, but are granted a small, basic area which is used to make tea and store food. There was also a small sofa and a television on which no one was watching David Attenborough talk about monkeys. We sat down by a window, where I was brought a welcome cup of tea. All the while David gently mumbled to himself in the background, regularly drowned out by the muffled sounds of passersby.

Red Watch passes most of its time on the picket line with card games, chatting about the strike and trying to keep warm. The firewood has been left by members of the public. Timber yards have left their telephone numbers, and bring in more fuel for the fire whenever it is needed. Apparently there is enough firewood to last them a year.

The fact that press attention has waned because of the war is understandable. My source felt that it was important to make clear, however, that the firefighters’ dispute was initiated early summer last year. Thus any blame the firefighters are given for taxing the military at this time is received with frustration. The firefighters feel that their opinion is being subtly undermined in this way. The fact that the government is able to get its point across more strongly than the FBU has created the impression that the media is increasingly buckling under New Labour spin.

The use of the word 'modernisation' was suggested as evidence for this. The seven years my source has been employed at the station have witnessed huge steps in modernisation. The equipment we've got is so much more sophisticated now. We are modernising. The government wants to carry out job cuts, potential station closures, and the changing of shifts. They should call it restructuring. It's going to be catastrophic for the entire British Fire Service.'

The apparently huge, negative reaction to the strike as reported by the press is also criticized. Even polls which claim support to have risen to 53%, like the Guardian's in November, appear overly moderate. The everyday reality of the picket line would certainly beg to differ. 'The polls are really not a good reflection of real life. We get a lot of support.' The public’s encouragement does not end with stoking the fire, the blaring of car horns, a thumbs-up and a wave. These gestures of encouragement are greatly appreciated. But there is further, more concrete evidence of community support.

Inside next to the sofa, the wall is plastered with e-mails and letters of support from unions and individual members of the public in Brighton, and one all the way from Canada. The bucket for the FBU hardship fund is always at hand. There have been some generous donations for those who have come in to difficulty because of the strike, be it because they are unable to pay off their mortgages, or because they have sustained injuries during a call out. Collections have also been made and dropped off by other unions in the area. 'We also have different trade unions that appeared, who have had collections at work and have brought in a bucket of money. Or for example the post workers' union came in a van with boxes of coffee...It’s been a huge response really.' Food has proven to be one of the main ways in which support has manifested itself. Everything from biscuits and chocolate to hot food are donated by the public, including that night's menu of Ratatouille and baked potatoes.

It surprised me to find that the firefighters take some of these donations to the army barracks up on Dyke Road. This demonstrates that local relations between firefighters and the military are relaxed. My source regrets that the military are always called in to clear up someone else's mess, and there appears to be no resentment between the two parties. 'The army have, on numerous occasions, passed the station going to calls. They've acknowledged us, and we've acknowledged them. So there's no problem at all.'

There is the question of whether community support is being reciprocated by the Fire Service. The fact that Red Watch would answer a call out in extreme circumstances argues yes it is. In the case that someone is trapped in blaze or a vehicle in a Road Traffic Accident, Red Watch would proceed. They will call us on a mobile phone from joint control to give us the address. We will then proceed in pump to the emergency.' When the firefighters are on strike this kind of call out goes unpaid and potentially uninsured. But then the members of Preston Circus Fire station are in the job because they care about it. They are also glad for the way this sort of occasion combats negative press attention. 'It's good in the way the public sees that if its a life threat we'll go. I wouldn't have thought there's single firefighter in the country, who wouldn't go out to someone in distress. That's what we are here for. We do care about our job.'

The maximum time anyone can spend in the fire service is thirty years. This means that there are fewer and fewer employees who took part in the last strike of 1977-8. There are, however, one or two on each watch. The last strike insured a pay formula that up until ten years ago was excellent. They consider this strike as just a cause as the last strike, although there are some differences. 'It's not just to do with pay now, it's also to do with conditions of service. We're talking about the entire Service changing drastically. That's what we're not happy with.'

It must be emphasized that none of the firefighters want to be on strike. Contrary to the representation of public opinion, the encouragement shown by the community to the strikers has been immense, going a long way to help those in the Fire Service endure adversity.

The most lasting aspect of the strike must be the reciprocal relationship between the firefighters and the community. And if anything the strike has shown that neither party’s trust has been misplaced.