FIREFIGHTERS in part of the region are being attacked at the rate of one a week, shock figures have revealed.

The 54 assaults in Cleveland in the year to the end of March was the highest in the country outside the biggest cities - Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester.

There were no attacks during 2004/2005 in the two neighbouring authorities of Durham and North Yorkshire, according to the statistics released to MPs.

In many similar-sized authorities - including Lancashire, Hampshire and Staffordshire, the number of attacks was in single figures.

Even in Tyne and Wear, a far larger authority incorporating Newcastle and Sunderland, there were only two attacks during the 12-month period.

Last December, Cleveland fire bosses issued a warning that lives could be lost after a spate of attacks on firefighters.

It followed an incident in which two Stockton firefighters, attending a rubbish fire at a house, needed hospital treatment after they were punched in the face by youths.

Only a few days earlier, yobs attacked two firefighters - knocking one unconscious - as they tried to steal equipment from a fire engine, also in Stockton.

Mark Whelan, Cleveland authority's director of community safety, said some of those attacking his crews were as young as seven.

He said: "Most parents would be horrified to learn that their children are attacking firefighters and some responsibility must lie with the parents.

"Attacks on firefighters have to stop. Not only are firefighters lives being endangered in the course of their work, but also the lives and the property of the community we serve.

"If we have to take crews and appliances out of operation, because staff have been injured or equipment damaged or stolen, there is a real risk we might not have the necessary resources left."

Mr Whelan said security cameras had been installed in some fire trucks allowing the authority to pass pictures to the police .

Frank Cook, Labour MP for Stockton North, agreed that bad parents were partly to blame for failing to control young attackers, who he condemned as "lunatics".

Mr Cook said: "These assaults are totally irresponsible.

"It is absolutely cretinous to attack people who are putting their lives at grave risk to serve their community."

Vera Baird, Labour MP for Redcar, east Cleveland, said: "If little kids are carrying out these attacks, their parents have to get a grip, because it is deplorable."

Earlier this year, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) called for a national strategy to deal with the rising number of attacks, running at an estimated 40 a week nationwide.

The FBU is pushing for a backbench MP to bring forward a Bill to introduce tougher penalties for attacks on firefighters and other emergency staff.