The thin end of the wedge? As local disputes continue to arise, and media speculation mounts over fire cover in the event of strike action, Fire looks at the options available and the political consequences of pursuing these actions.(Operational Cover)

AS THE COLD WAR PHASE of the 2003 dispute and its consequences fester, tension continues to manifest itself in a rash of actual or threatened disputes over major and seemingly insignificant issues. With the UK armed forces stretched to breaking point and beyond--the drop off in recruitment since the Iraq war will lead to a military shortfall of nearly 30,000--what options are left for fire and rescue authorities to fill the gap during disputes?

Reliance on the retained duty system staff to provide cover, while adequate in some instances, will not be likely to be sustainable nationwide. And waiting in the background are arguments about the settlement of the firefighters' long service increment and the potential conflict approaching over the 2007 pay formula. One of the ideas currently being mooted is the employment of private companies or overseas fire and rescue services to provide cover during disputes. But is this a realistic proposition and what are the consequences likely to be?

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 places a duty upon Category 1 responders--including the FRAs--to make provision for maintaining critical services during periods of crises and civil emergencies including industrial action. Traditionally, during most recent disputes this critical cover was provided by the armed forces. The 19,000 or so service personnel that provided cover during the 2002/3 dispute had shrunk by over 7,500 by the time of the industrial dispute hiccup of late summer 2004. …

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