Britain was making war-like preparations against disaster tonight as 32,000 firemen prepared to walk out Monday in the country's first such nationwide strike.
Some 10,000 troops, hurriedly trained in fire fighting courses, were deployed today in cities and towns across the country. Another 900 specialists in air crashes, drawn from the navy and air force, will back up the soldiers with skilled advice.
From the continent, NATO headquarters is sending over the Allied Mobile Force, a fire brigade of 7,000 soldiers and airmen from eight nations. The force will engage in a training exercise on the Salisbury plain and around the Aldershot military base.
Although the brigade includes 2,500 British troops, the government here will not be in a hurry to use foreign soldiers as replacements for striking Britons. Nevertheless, the NATO troops have obviously been ordered here in case the emergency teams are overwhelmed.
Merlyn Rees, the home secretary, took to national television and radio tonight, appealing to Britons to "keep a special eye on the old people and children" during the stoppage. He admitted that the government "cannot provide full cover" against fires. But promised "the best possible cover."
Rees warned that the pay dispute "could result in serious loss of life and damage to property. The grave consequences of the strike cannot be measured."
The government has also launched a heavy media campaign, urging mothers against leaving children and the aged unattended and telling house-holders to fill buckets with water. The Red Cross has issued instructions on how to treat burns.
A search of warehouses for spare equipment has yielded 700 "green goddesses," 20-year-old engines with only 30-foot ladders and a bell.
In rural areas, most of the 13,000 auxiliary, part-time firemen are expected to report for work, although some will respect picket lines thrown up by the striking regulars. Part-time firemen are expected to report for work, although some will respect picket lines thrown up by the striking regulars.
Government officials candidly acknowledge that they are unable to provide regular fire protection and simply hope to minimize the danger.
In London, for example, the professionals can respond to any call in five minutes or less. The makeshift service, it is thought, will bring troops to a blaze in about 20 minutes.
The threat of a strike is related to government attempts to limit all pay increases to 10 per cent in an effort to end the double-figure inflation that has plagued the country for more than three years.
Prime Minister James Callaghan, himself a former lobbyist for policemen, is convinced the job cannot be done unless the government sets an example with its own civil servants.
For their part, the firemen complain that inflation has forced them from a pay well above the industrial average to one well below it. their basic rate for a 48-hour week is $118 against a national average of $141.50. They want 10 per cent more than this or about $155.70.
The government has agreed that the work week should be cut to 42 hours. It has offered the standard 10 per cent increase or about $130 and promised to tie firemen's wages in the future to some national formula.