MERSEYSIDE firefighters will be balloted on strike action which would leave the region with no military cover for the first time.
Union leaders will meet the fire authority tomorrow over cutbacks, including 120 job losses and plans to reduce nightly cover in Liverpool city centre to one fire engine, in a bid to find a resolution.
But the prospects of an agree-ment look bleak and with military resource taken up in Iraq and Afghanistan, army green goddesses would be unable to provide cover.
The Fire Brigades Union is angry over the recommendations of "time and motion consultants", who have previously been brought into the Hertfordshire brigade, where a strike resulted.
The FBU has commissioned accountants to draw up a report to find ways to claw back the £3m worth of savings the fire service insists it must make. The team found ditching projects like the £1m Fireworld scheme, a fire safety centre the brigade wants to set up, would help meet the budget deficit without losing jobs or reducing the number of fire pumps.
But if their demands are not met, they could walk out even though the army is unable to provide emergency back-up.
Les Skarratts, secretary of Merseyside Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said they have now been given permission to ballot for strike action if talks fail.
He said: "None of us wants a strike, and we hope it will be avoided. But there is an acute requirement for the authority to undertake serious and mature discussions with us.
"We have been given permission by the executive council to ballot for strike action and we will do so if the talks break down.
"The principle of Fireworld is a very noble idea but people need to ask themselves whether they would rather have that or firefighters.
"We have got about three weeks of consultation with the authority left. Time is running out."
It comes weeks after Hertfordshire became the first county to experience a fire strike without military back-up. Only minimal cover was available during the pay dispute.
Around the UK, Green Goddesses have been taken off the roads permanently and the Government is refusing to provide army cover in emergencies.
A source close to Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service said: "If this strike does go ahead, there will certainly be no army cover.
"Troops from the Territorial Army are on standby to go to Iraq and Afghanistan and they can't be used to put out fires.
"It may have gone without major incident in Hertfordshire, because it is one of the smallest fire services in the country, but Merseyside is one of the biggest - there will be countless lives at risk."
A wildcat strike in 2002 is the only time fire cover has ever been withdrawn on Merseyside before but that lasted just four hours.
Mr Skarratts said the cost-cutting was part of the third year of the fire service's risk management plan.
Under the proposals, 10% of operational staff would lose their jobs, he claimed. And he said Chief Fire Officer Tony McGuirk was planning to take four fire engines off duty at night, at Liverpool, Birkenhead, Bootle and St Helens.
Mr Skarratts said: "The fire service is also moving Liverpool's fire station from the waterfront two miles away to St Anne Street.
"This will double the area the station serves, and we think that is absurd at a time when they are reducing the cover by half.
"We think it will make Liverpool the only city in the UK without a fire station in the city centre.
"There is a very real and significant risk, not only to the safety of members of the brigade, but also to members of the community."
The FBU has also recommended other ways of cutting costs without reducing cover.
It suggests placing money saved up in funds into immediate budgets and postponing high-cost educational projects while the deficit is reduced.
A fire service spokesman confirmed "limited" cover would be provided in the event of a strike, but refused to speculate how much.
He said: "There are always contingency plans in place. It is very unlikely that there would be any military support and that has been shown elsewhere in the country.
"But if the FBU does call a strike, we still have people here who can man fire engines."