I actually served with a Green Goddess Crew in the Firefighters' Strikes of
2002. Without giving the background to the fire strikes (that's for another
node) I will here give an impression of life for the military on the strikes.
Please note that this is a personal narrative, and in no way reflects the views
or policy of the Ministry of Defence, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister,
or Royal Air Force.
I was in charge of Temporary Service Fire Station (TSFS) Port Talbot, a
small town in South Wales probably best known for its steel industry. South
Wales used to be an economic powerhouse, especially prior to the privatisation
of British Steel in the 1980s. TSFS Port Talbot was located at the BP
chemical plant, Baglan, about 3 miles outside the town centre.
I was the officer commanding (OC). Under me were 15 Royal Air Force trained
personnel, including a Flight Sergeant, who was my second-in-command, and a
sergeant, my third-in-command. We were all formed under the codename,
Operation FRESCO, and our job was simple; to fight fires, save lives, and
maintain safety in Port Talbot, the jobs the striking fire-crews would usually
have carried out.
I was present throughout the strikes, and my team responded to a variety of
calls. It was not an easy job for us, as not one of us was an RAF firefighter. I
am a Fighter Controller, my two sergeants were Parachute Jump Instructors, and
the rest were a mixture of technicians and RAF police.
Op FRESCO was a national operation, one of the largest such operations ever
carried out by the military in support of other government departments. The
whole operation was co-ordinated by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM),
under John Prescott MP. The Ministry of Defence had no involvement other
than providing the required personnel.
When we arrived at Baglan, there were no facilities other than a few empty
rooms. We swiftly set up a general office/rest area, kitchen, and games room.
The MoD is very good at treating us well on deployed ops, and this translated
well to Op FRESCO. We were supplied with civilian caterers and a variety of
games, a TV and video recorder, and a phone for compassionate purposes. We were
also working in field conditions, meaning we did not have to pay for our food or
accommodation (we were staying at the Grand Hotel, Port Talbot).
Although the RAF had control on the fireground, we were accompanied at all
times by civilian police, who provided an escort for the Green Goddess, which
had swiftly been christened Delilah after Tom Jones's song. Travelling at a
top speed of 50mph, but usually restricted to 30mph, the GG was no match for
civilian firetenders, although it did have a decent water capacity (300 gallons
as opposed to the civilian engines' 500 gallons), and could link in to fire
hydrants. I drilled my team daily to make sure they were up to the task, and I
was confident that my Flight Sergeant and Sergeant - both in charge of shifts of
7 personnel - were well up to the challenges facing them.
Our first call was to a fire in a shed next to a derelict house (there are
lots of derelicts in Port Talbot, it was one of our greatest concerns). The
fire was nearly out of control when we arrived, but within 20 minutes it was
under control. Delilah stood up well to the challenge, and A shift had proven
that TSFS Port Talbot could do the job.
We attended a variety of car- and skip-fires, until eventually we were faced
with the most difficult challenge of all.
On Saturday 23 November, shortly before 0820, we received a fax directing us
to attend a road crash on the M4. A lorry had bounced over the central
reservation, and landed square on top of a Ford Mondeo carrying two people.
Needless to say, both died in the crash. A third vehicle, a minibus, piled into
the crash, although no-one else was hurt.
The crew who attended were badly shaken up by this, as was I (I attended to
deal with the media). We had been dealing with small, controllable fires, and
now we were at the scene of two deaths. To their credit, the civilian fire
brigade, upon hearing about the crash, deserted their picket and rushed to the
scene. They were always helpful and courteous to us. Following this incident -
one of the most serious faced by any FRESCO personnel - I gave two interviews to
the BBC, one live on BBC News 24, the other to BBC News Wales. I was told
not to mention casualties, since the families had not been informed. This was
difficult, and it really brought home the tragedy of the incident.
The media were generally very good throughout the strike, never taking sides.
The only criticism we had was that, as we were all wearing Combat Soldier 95
uniforms (camouflage, usually worn for such work) the media - and, therefore,
the public - instantly assumed we were all Army personnel. In fact, there were
5,000 Royal Air Force personnel and 3,000 Royal Navy personnel involved. We
had ROYAL AIR FORCE printed along the side of Delilah, but it didn't seem to
make much difference. Even I was referred to as an Army officer in the report,
while wearing an RAF beret!
The reason I write this is because everyone needs to know the difficulties
facing firefighters from day-to-day, and also the difficulties I and 19,000
other military personnel faced on Op FRESCO. The military were not thanked for
our work, and we asked for no thanks. It was a difficult job, and an interesting
and, at times, entertaining one - we just got on with what we had to do. It was
difficult for some of us - men separated from their wives and families, living
on a permanent shift basis, never free from work. One of my men found out his
wife was pregnant with their second child, and could not go home to see her for
three weeks. Hopefully if it happens again, people will better appreciate the
difficulties we faced, and provide us with a little more support.
On the issue of the Yellow Goddesses in Northern Ireland, we appreciated
the difficulties facing the FRESCO crews there - some of us have worked in
Northern Ireland. We found it funny, though, that the government thought that
by painting a military vehicle yellow it would deflect political problems -
despite the men in green suits riding around in them!