UK firefighter dispute 2002–03

The 2002-2003 UK firefighter dispute began when the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) voted to take strike action in an attempt to secure a better salary. The FBU demanded a 39 percent increase in pay, which would have brought the average firefighter's wage to around £30,000. It balloted its members for a strike in late 2002 and the industrial action began in November. It was the first nationwide firefighters' strike in the UK since the 1970s.[1] The strike was led by FBU General Secretary Andy Gilchrist.[2]


Local authorities recommended a pay increase of 4%, whilst an independent review advised 11%. The FBU rejected both of these requesting 40%. The government argued that this could result in substantially higher wages across the public sector and tax increases.[3] The Independent Review of the Fire Service (known as the "Bain Review") proposed increasing salaries, on condition that the fire service was reformed, including firefighters being trained as paramedics.[4]

Strike periods

The first few weeks of the planned action were postponed while negotiation took place. The first period, a two-day strike, began at 18:00 hrs GMT, on Wednesday 13 November and ended at 18:00 on Friday 15 November. In the event that reconciliation could not be brokered, further industrial action was planned.[5]

The armed forces provided emergency cover during the strike, using vintage Green Goddess engines, and modern red fire appliances, as Operation Fresco. The armed forces also fielded small breathing apparatus rescue teams (BART) and rescue equipment support teams (REST) headed by professional firefighters of the RAF and staffed by specially trained members of all three services.[6]

Each side placed the responsibility entirely with the other; the FBU said that their employers' failure to meet their demands was the cause of the strike. Many feared that lives would be lost in fires because of a lack of a prompt response by emergency services. There were numerous examples of striking firefighters responding to emergency calls from the picket line and several rescues were made in this way.


The first few weeks of the planned action were postponed while negotiation took place. The FBU rejected an offer that would amount to 11 percent over two years from a review body headed by Sir George Bain, and were unwilling to accept reforms to their working conditions. The FBU was widely criticised for its initial demand for a 40 percent pay-rise for both firefighters and support workers; indeed, it refused to abandon this demand despite mounting public disquiet concerning the FBU's stance.

On March 19, 2003, leaders of the FBU and negotiators for the local authority employers reached a provisional agreement based on a three-year pay settlement and an understanding that modernisation measures would be subject to some measure of local negotiation. To the surprise of many observers, this was voted down by local area FBU representatives the following day.[7]

On June 12, 2003, the dispute ended with the firefighters accepting a pay deal worth 16 percent over three years linked to changes to working conditions.

Tensions were raised again in 2004, when the FBU and local authority employers clashed over whether the deal brokered in 2003 was being honoured. However, this round of negotiations was settled without recourse to industrial action in August of that year.[8]

See also


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