AN END to the bitter firefighters' dispute was in sight last night after union leaders urged acceptance of a peace deal, nine months after the conflict started.

The executive of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) voted to recommend that a final deal worth 16 per cent over two-and-a-half years should be accepted.

The recommendation will be put to a recalled union conference next month when delegates from across the country will have the final say on whether the dispute will finally come to an end.

Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the FBU, said after a meeting of the union's executive in London: "Following a series of discussions between ourselves and the employers, a potential breakthrough has emerged. We have got before us a proposed agreement which differs significantly from previous offers.

"The executive has decided beyond any doubt that it addresses the concerns and will recommend it to a recalled conference."

The move looked set to break the deadlocked pay row and end months of industrial unrest in the fire service.

An employers' source said: "We are all hoping it is finished. We have talked things through and I just hope it will be acceptable - it should be.

"It deals with our concerns and with their concerns."

One of the main sticking points in recent months has been the union fear that thousands of jobs were to be axed to pay for the wage rise.

The FBU was also concerned that local fire officers and other managers would be able to decide shift patterns and staffing levels without any input from the union.

Under the proposed agreement, a panel will be convened, chaired by an independent person, to sort out problems related to staffing.

Steve Gregg, the FBU's regional chairman in the North-East, said the "devil was in the detail" in terms of the new offer, but added: "I am a little bit more optimistic if there are safeguards about jobs and conditions of service.

"We will have a meeting of our regional committee on Thursday when we will be briefed about this by our executive council member, who has been in London.

"Then we will go round to every watch and station presenting the deal to firefighters, and the members will decide whether it is acceptable to them."