HARLOW, England (AP) -- Firefighters walked off their jobs Wednesday in their first nationwide strike in a quarter-century, demanding a 40 percent pay raise to salaries they say are barely enough to live on.
About 50,000 firefighters across the United Kingdom began a 48-hour strike at 6 p.m. They threatened three eight-day strikes in November and December if the government does not meet their terms.
Providing protection in their place will be military personnel operating antiquated ``Green Goddess'' fire trucks -- no substitute for highly trained firefighters using the latest equipment. They are aided in small towns by part-time firefighters who haven't gone on strike.
The government advised anyone who spots a fire to get outside and phone 999 in the usual way.
``Make no mistake, someone will die _ but we will not be to blame, we have been forced into this,'' said Jim Jewell, a senior officer at Harlow Fire Station in southeast England, running his gaze over a row of gleaming fire engines.
The military substitutes quickly got firsthand experience, fighting a fire in Manchester, England, putting out a blaze in a London apartment building's garbage chute -- and dealing with hoax calls.
In Wales, a 76-year-old woman died after a house fire that broke out within an hour of the strike. A Green Goddess crew arrived nine minutes after it was called and broke into the smoke-filled house and brought the woman out. She died later in a hospital and the union expressed its condolences to her family.
Many firefighters have taken extra jobs, saying the base salary of $34,400 a year is inadequate, particularly in the expensive southeast region, where the average house price is well above $160,000.
``Even a small house around here costs a fortune _ these guys are struggling and they feel badly let down,'' said Jewell.
The government and employers have offered pay increases of 11 percent over two years in return for a wholesale restructuring of the service. The Fire Brigades Union says they will accept nothing short of 40 percent, which raises the base salary to $55,000.
``There is no government on Earth that could yield to such a claim,'' Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday, referring to the pay demand.
Britain's fire service is publicly funded, though local authorities run its 50 brigades. Talks foundered Tuesday with the union rejecting proposed changes in working conditions and deriding the government's offer as insulting, but discussions continued Wednesday.
The dispute has become a test of the resolve of Blair's Labor government, which this week published proposals for the biggest shake-up in the fire service for more than 50 years.
Sir George Bain, whose inquiry led to the report, proposed giving firefighters 4 percent this year and 7 next time around, provided the union agrees to reforms.
The union says if its terms are not met, further strikes, each lasting eight days, will follow on Nov. 22 and on Dec. 4 and 16.
Employers' spokesman John Ransford described the union's demands as ``entirely unrealistic.''
Fire Brigades Union general secretary Andy Gilchrist said firefighters would likely leave picket lines if they were informed of emergencies -- but without the usual chain of command and communication, it was unlikely they would be informed.
In his review, Bain listed 56 proposals for reforming the service, including a change to a system that currently allows firefighters to work two days followed by two nights, then four days off.
Overtime, now banned, would be reintroduced and the service's military-style regulations, including disciplinary appeals to government ministers, would be scrapped. Rigid national pay structures would be replaced by a more flexible arrangement, allowing employers to reward achievers.
Bain also wants the service made more inclusive; currently fewer than 1 percent of firefighters are black or female.
Firefighters say they have had to take on many extra roles, including responding to chemical spills and floods and -- since Sept. 11 -- the threat of terrorist attack, possibly with poison gas.
The average firefighter makes $34,400 for the first 15 years, when he gets a long-service bonus of less than $1,600 a year. A junior officer makes $38,400, the station commander $57,600.
Firehouse.com will post updates on this page, along with daily headlines from the UK
Wednesday, Nov. 13