FIREFIGHTERS on Merseyside yesterday joined an unofficial fire dispute which it is feared may spiral into a national strike.
Staff in 15 fire stations told their managers they would only respond to 999 calls and refused to carry out fire safety work or training.
Their action was in response to the suspension of 35 firefighters in Salford on Tuesday for refusing to use new anti-terrorist equipment.
Eleven stations in the region are still working normally.
There were fears last night the confrontation could lead to a repetition of last year's national walk-outs, which saw the army providing emergency cover in a fleet of ageing Green Goddess fire engines.
Ian Foulkes, brigade secretary for the Merseyside Fire Brigade Union, said: "An unofficial action by firefighters in Merseyside is taking place in response to the actions of Greater Manchester Fire Service.
"The action they are taking is to answer 999 work but do no community work or training."
A spokesman for Merseyside Fire Service said Chief Fire Officer Tony McGuirk was "disappointed and saddened" by the action.
He added there was presently no disciplinary action planned against firefighters currently not performing all their duties.
He said: "At this stage we are making an effort to keep things cool.
"The authority is willing to accept a partial performance of contract but it reserves the right to deduct a proportional amount of pay.
"The Chief hopes this will be resolved and that we come out of this turbulent period."
The dispute flared when the Salford firefighters were sent home after their protest at the failure to finalise the deal which ended the long-running national strike.
The Salford dispute yesterday led to unofficial action in Merseyside, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Avon, West Midlands, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset.
Union leaders have warned the Salford dispute could lead to its 55,000 members being balloted again for industrial action, although the action is currently unofficial.
Firefighters in Cheshire have not yet become involved in the dispute.
FBU spokesman Steve Tottie said: "There was a meeting of all Cheshire fire stations today where there was firm solidarity with regards to the Manchester firefighters.
"It was decided that firefighters and control staff would work normally. There are no plans to get involved at the moment."
Last night the new shift at stations across Merseyside held meetings to decide their course of action. The picture remained roughly the same with around 15 of 26 stations taking 999 calls only. Cheshire remained on normal cover.