FIREFIGHTERS will return to work tomorrow (Friday, June 13) after a 24-hour strike - the longest walkout since the dispute over pensions and an increased retirement age began.

Members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in England and Wales walked out at 9am today (Thursday).

The action coincided with the start of the World Cup and prompted fire chiefs to urge fans not to cook late at night for fear of starting fires.

Another strike will be held on June 22, with the FBU saying it is determined to continue with its campaign.

Union members manned picket lines outside fire stations across the North-East and North Yorkshire.

Paul Dawson, FBU brigade organiser based at Darlington, said if the retirement age was increased from 55 to 60, as proposed by the Government, the physical demands of the job meant that two thirds of firefighters would not reach it.

"They would be left in the situation of having no job and no pension," Mr Dawson said.

"And they have put up pension contributions year on year meaning that many people can't afford to pay for their pensions, which potentially means the scheme will collapse."

General secretary Matt Wrack challenged Fire Minister Brandon Lewis to take part in a televised debate on the proposals, which the union says are "unworkable, unaffordable and unfair".

He said: "The Government is ignoring all the evidence from its own reports on these proposals and has failed to counter our arguments in three years of negotiations."

Stuart Errington, deputy chief fire officer of County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, said the fact that the strike coincided with the opening World Cup match in Brazil meant that some people would be drinking more than usual on a Thursday evening.

He urged fans not to cook under the influence of alcohol and get a take-away instead.

The Government maintains that firefighters will continue to receive decent pensions despite its reforms.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: "All fire and rescue authorities have robust and well tested plans in place that include back up support if needed. Public safety will remain the primary focus and if anyone needs emergency assistance they should dial 999.

"The Government believes a solution can be reached, but not under the shadow of industrial action, which only serves to damage firefighters' good standing with the public. By disrupting constructive discussions and an open consultation in this way the FBU has once again shown it is not serious about finding a resolution."