Fire Service on Its Way Back from the Depths; ONE Year Ago Today Merseyside Was Left Completely without Fire Cover for Four Hours after a ``Wildcat'' Strike by Firefighters. It Had Never Happened before and Was Undoubtedly One of the Lowest Points in Merseyside Industrial History. Twelve Months Later and with a National Pay Strike Looming, Has the Situation within the Merseyside Fire Service Got Any Better? ANDY KELLY Reports

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MERSEYSIDE'S Chief Fire Officer last night described last year's wildcat firefighters' strike as the ``lowest point in the history of Merseyside Fire Service.''

But Tony McGuirk believes it was a defining moment for all sides of the service in getting their act together and finding a better way forward.

Today is the anniversary of the walk-out by firefighters at Toxteth fire station which spread across the region.

They stopped work on September 10 in support of colleague Richie Evered, who was suspended over allegations of running an internet website lampooning former Chief Fire Officer Malcolm Saunders.

Fire service bosses claimed the site contained sexist and racist material and defamatory statements.

For four hours Merseyside was without a fire service.

Frantic negotiations resulted in the suspension being reduced to indefinite leave and a semblance of sanity was restored.

The tragic events just 24 hours later in New York overshadowed what had been a shocking episode in local industrial relations.

Tony McGuirk, the then deputy CFO, said: ``It was the lowest point in the history of Merseyside Fire Service.

``People who had gone into a job determined to save lives felt so strongly that they could walk away from that.

``I think it was the final straw for everyone, including the public.

``A lot of firefighters thought `what have we done?' and those thoughts were heightened by the events of September 11.

``What happened in New York focused minds even more sharply although even without that I do not believe it would ever have happened again.''

Since then there have been concerted efforts to improve the relationship between management and the Fire Brigades Union.

Former CFO Malcolm Saunders, the man at the centre of many of the disputes, has departed on health grounds along with the chairman of Merseyside Fire Authority, Coun Peter Dowd.

Management and unions now meet once a week to avoid confrontation.

Mr McGuirk said: ``We have been trying to rebuild trust and confidence. …