AFTER dragging on for 15 months and culminating in a series of strikes it would appear the fire dispute is nearly over with a reported 16per cent rise in the pipeline. If this is the outcome then it is good news on several fronts.

The dispute has shown how much we, as a country, take our armed forces for granted and once again they have come to the rescue in an emergency, covering for the striking firefighters. But this is far from ideal. Our servicemen and women are not experts in fighting fires and in any case, they should be preparing for war.

Firefighters' pay has fallen behind that of other essential workers in recent years and I believe they are justified in their claim for a substantial increase. What concerns me is the price the firefighters - and the public in general - will have to pay for this wage rise. It always baffled me when some commentators spoke of the fire service having to modernise.

In my trips to fire stations I have never met any resisitance to change. I have seen how fire engines now carry defibrillators and other medical equipment as a matter of course.

But just as a soldier is not the same as a fireman, so a fireman is not the same as a paramedic. Already we hear cases of fire engines being sent to resuscitate heart attack victims because there isn't an ambulance available.

The nature of firefighters is such that they will never turn a blind eye to anyone in distress but the Government should not take advantage of such a caring disposition. The price of the properly funded fire service should not be a second class ambulance service.

IT is said that youth is wasted on the young and I couldn't help but feel that on listening to some of the children who skipped a day at school to protest about the Government's stance on Iraq. I appreciate that marching through the streets, waving banners and singing rebel songs is more exciting than double maths but I do hope those that have tied their bandanas to the anti-war alliance did their homework first.

It's OK protesting at the Government's stance but so far I haven't heard any credible alternative as to how to deal with Saddam Hussein. I also hope the young protestors appreciate the role in society of the police.

Watching some of the marchers on television they seemed to be directing their venom at police officers. It was reminiscent of the baying mobs that gather - often with children - whenever those accused of heinous crimes are brought to court. Again it is the police who are stuck in the middle.

Mind you, it's no wonder young people get confused in a society which encourages them to spend, spend, spend regardless of their income. I fear the Government's stance on education loans sends out a worrying message to the young and impressionable that debt is no big thing. Naturally those providing the funds want their pound of interest and pretty soon the figures are meaningless to a teenager determined to keep up with their pals. The Government needs to seriously consider the example it is setting. The price of a good education should not be a lifetime of debt.