An estimated 800 firefighters from across England, Wales and Northern Ireland surged through Chelmsford's city centre today to protest against year-on-year budget cuts that union members warn could cost lives.
The Fire Brigades Union's rally came as members across Essex continued a 24-hour strike - their third industrial action in as many weeks over plans to cull the county's roster of full-time officers and replace them with part-time "retained" firefighters.
The union has bitterly opposed the plans, saying it would mean a 20 per cent drop in the number of front-line staff since 2008 - the service has already lost 100 full-time and 60 retained crew members from a complement of 1,500, according to officials.
Chelmsford crews who spoke to the Morning Star today asked not to be named for fear of disciplinary action.
But one said they were "angry at getting bullied and intimidated.
"It's not about money. We're fighting to keep firemen that you're paying towards in tax.
"You're a taxpayer, you pay your taxes, you want your taxes to go on engines and crew."
Another said it was a matter of basic safety. Many people in the general public did not understand the risks with relying on retained staff for emergencies.
But part-timers who had to race to the station meant wasting precious minutes - and the first full-time crew on the scene would still need back-up.
That second crew could be up to 10 or 20 minutes later, he said.
"We can't go into a burning building to save them without anybody to back us up. If anything goes wrong, you've got no back-up for the team in the building."
Essex Fire & Rescue deputy chief fire officer Adam Eckley accused the union of "a cheap PR opportunity," saying the service had promised not to close stations, cut the number of engines or make officers redundant.
But the union's national officer David Green dismissed the allegation as "insulting.
"Chief fire officers will praise their workforce when they respond to incidents, but will turn violent and condemn them when they stand up for themselves.
"This idea that people will leave their communities without fire cover for a publicity stunt is insulting."
The cuts were "not just an Essex issue per se." Chancellor George Osborne's austerity programme is expected to siphon off 25 per cent of the service's central government funding by 2015, while cuts-complicit councils have already lopped £34 milion from local government grants.
But Essex remained a crucial battleground, he said.
"The reality is, these cuts are forever," he said.
"You just have to wonder what exactly the agenda is. It's absolutely phenomenal."
The union's general secretary Matt Wrack told the Morning Star they were ready to talk with Mr Eckley and conciliators "at any time."
But the union was prepared to keep up the campaign if Mr Eckles insisted on "silly" press releases instead, he said.
Further strikes are expected today, on August 18 and October 18.
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