Contingency plans were being drawn up last night as firefighters threatened their first national strike in 25 years in a row over pay.
Leaders of the Fire Brigades Union warned at a march in Belfast that they are prepared to hold a country-wide walk-out if they do not win a new salary formula. During the firefighters' strike in 1977 the Army's Green Goddess fire engines answered emergency calls for nine weeks.
Fire crews have been waging a national campaign for a rise in the average wage for an experienced firefighter from £21,500 a year to £30,000. This would bring them in line with other public service professionals such as teachers and the police.
The formula at the centre of the protest was drawn up after the 1977 stoppage and linked firefighters' pay to that of male manual workers. The union claims that the formula is outdated.
Yesterday's rally in Northern Ireland followed similar demonstrations in recent weeks in Swansea, Manchester, Cardiff and Glasgow. Fire Brigades Union spokesman Jim Barbour claimed that firefighters' earnings 'in no way reflect the difficult and often very dangerous job we do, not least here in Northern Ireland'.
He added: 'We have said all along that we want to avoid confrontation. This remains the case. However, we are absolutely determined that our firefighters should receive the proper salary for the professional job they do. We are not asking for special treatment, but fair treatment,' he said.
Jim Quinn, the union's representative in Northern Ireland said the pay claim was supported by seven parties in the province: 'We have got to convince the Government - our employers - to recognise that there's a need for a change in our pay formula and we have to convince the Government that we are absolutely worth it.
'We hope that we will convince the Government that our pay claim is just and we'll not have to take any industrial action, but at the moment we are prepared to take industrial action if it is necessary. But hopefully we'll not have to do that.'
He said the march would not affect cover at fire stations in the UK today.
Another London rally is planned for 2 September to coincide with talks between the FBU and the pay body.
A vote for strike action at the union's annual conference on 12 September could lead to a stoppage as soon as October.