For the first time ever, ordinary members of the public have been asked to train as firefighters to protect the public in case of a strike. Chris Webber found out more.

YOUR house is on fire. You grab the phone, call 999, frantically plead for help...only to hear an automated message saying , ‘sorry, we’re on strike today.’ It is a situation which, in a country with possibly the most respected Fire Brigade in the world, could never be allowed to happen.

Grainy television images of ‘green goddesses’ - 1950s old auxiliary service engines – being operated by squaddies during previous firefighter strikes in 1977 and 2002 are firmly lodged in the public consciousness.

But those old engines, all 900 of them, have gone, sold off to African countries, and the army, already stretched, has said it would not be able to help this time.

With a strike looking likely over pension reform Ian Hayton, chief fire officer at Cleveland Fire Brigade, was left with a serious problem. About 95 per cent of firemen and women in Cleveland are members of the union, higher than other areas. And Cleveland is also in a worse position than North Yorkshire and Durham where most auxiliaries and middle managers are expected to answer the call if a strike is announced.

A radical plan was needed. For the first time in its history the brigade issued an appeal to the public, to people who have never sat in a fire engine in their lives, to come forward.

More than 160 men and woman, aged from 18 to over 60, answered the call. Some came from the ranks of the unemployed, many desperate for paid work of £10 an hour and £150 for a full shift, as well as grabbing at the chance to prove their worth. Others were trained Heavy Goods Vehicle drivers, already well able to drive a fire engine, and a large number of ex-military people also saw the chance to once again do their duty. Many have taken time off their regular jobs.

“But really there were all types of people from all walks of life,” said Phil Lancaster, director of community protection at Cleveland Fire Brigade. Mr Lancaster explained that all 160 were put through some serious tests, before they were even considered for training. First they all had to do a series of 20 metre runs against the clock and then run with dumb bells. They were also put in rooms filled with cosmetic smoke, tested on ladder climbs and towers to see how they could handle heights and observed dealing with breathing apparatus.

“A lot did very well, and it was hard to only choose the 60 or so we ended up with,” said Mr Lancaster, who explained many of those not chosen are being kept on the books. The ones who got through have each had five days' training, largely on dealing with equipment and supporting the 30 or so professionals who are not union members.

Mr Hayton stressed that the novices would not be allowed inside any burning building and their duties would be based on effectively supporting 30 or so professionals and using ladders and other equipment efficiently.

He said: “It is the driver who operates the pump so he or she has to be trained in that. However, it’s really all about giving help to the professionals. The feedback we got was they found their training challenging but they enjoyed picking up new skills. Their commitment and enthusiasm is obvious.”

Turning to the business of the potential of a strike, Mr Hayton, like the union leaders themselves, expressed his fervent hope it wouldn’t happen. He explained that his men and women’s fight to stop a downgrade in their pension deal was with the Government, not the local brigade. A ballot for strike was passed on August 29 with 78 per cent of members voting in favour. However that vote is only valid for 28 days and then the strike can not be called. What’s more, the FBU have to give seven days’ notice, meaning the country will know if it is facing a firefighter strike by September 21.

If the strike is called, a series of safety messages for the public have already been planned for release, basic things like reminding people to install smoke alarms and take extra care while cooking or driving.

But a strike poses extra worries for Teesside, one of the most industrialised and densely populated areas in the country. The area has no fewer than 41 designated highly dangerous sites like steel works, chemical plants, a nuclear plant and a huge industrial port. That compares with just one such site in the whole of County Durham.

Clearly the willing men, and at least one woman, who have undertaken five days’ training in handling ladders, would only be of limited use if there was a major accident at any one of those industrial sites. Mr Hayton explained many of the major companies have their own teams of well-trained safety crews. However he has written to the FBU to seek assurances union members would return to work if ‘the big one’ happened. No response had been received by last week but the matter was due to be discussed at the highest levels of the FBU. What’s more The Northern Echo has been told it is likely there would be a positive response from union members if there was a very serious incident. In the last major strike of 2002 the union agreed members could go back to work on a voluntary basis for very serious matters.

Brian Gibson, Cleveland branch president of the FBU and dedicated fireman himself for 27 years, said he understood Ian Hayton had to protect the public and added that the union was “desperate” not to strike. “We’ve tried everything but the Government haven’t even responded to us, we just want to get round the table. Of course we don’t want to go on strike.”

Last week, the media were invited to watch the novice firemen in training, a training that must have involved union members who may have to strike. We weren’t allowed to interview the trainees or even photograph their faces. But watching the sheer seriousness of the exercises, it soon became clear this training was far from some kind of lark. The Cleveland public can be assured: genuine emergency calls will be answered.