THE FIRE Brigades Union (FBU) stated that UK fire and rescue services (FRSs) remain on ‘alert’ for a second wave of the pandemic, with their agreement to assist other services extended.

In the early stages of lockdown, the FBU, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) and the national employer confirmed that additional activities to assist other key services during the pandemic had been agreed for FRS staff, including mask face fitting, delivering personal protective equipment (PPE), administering tests, and driving as well as training on driving ambulances.

In April, a further agreement saw 300 London Fire Brigade (LFB) firefighters drive ambulances and assist paramedics in London’s pandemic response, after news that firefighters would aim to protect the vulnerable in society by avoiding hospitals and care homes, as part of an agreed ‘critical risk-based service’.

Prior to this, FRS staff had been confirmed to be undertaking COVID-19 antigen testing, driving non blue light ambulance transport and non COVID patients, and training others to drive ambulances for the same services. Other activities ‘requested by partner organisations’ were ‘still under discussion’. Also in April, it was revealed that over 4,000 FRS staff had volunteered to assist the other key services, while a further 10,000 staff were ‘on standby to assist as and when required’.

In May, the three bodies agreed firefighters could build protective face shields for frontline NHS staff and care staff, and transfer patients from and to Nightingale hospitals, alongside packaging and repackaging food supplies. That month, the NFCC confirmed FRSs would ‘work with local partners to support care homes’ and stop the spread of COVID-19, and then confirmed that the FRS agreements have been ‘extended’ following ‘extensive negotiations’ that lasted ‘a number of days’.

FRSs ‘remain at the heart of the response’, and continued to undertake the agreed activities, with the potential to ‘extend further if joint work on reviewing assessments is agreed and concluded’. In June, it pointed out that with the pandemic potentially continuing ‘for the next few months, even years’, there will be changes for FRSs, before the NFCC shared FRS staff experiences during the lockdown.

The agreement was extended again in late July, though in August the FBU warned about an outbreak at Surrey Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS), which ‘wipe[d] out’ FRS cover, and it noted that FRSs ‘are required to plan for major emergencies like pandemics’, especially on the ‘impact they can have on staffing’.

It has now confirmed that the agreement has been extended further, with FRSs ‘preparing for a second wave’ as daily UK cases begin to ‘surge to record highs’. The FBU also shared data that showed firefighters had intervened ‘more than 400,000 times to aid the Covid response’, including two thirds of FRSs being ‘brought in to assist mortuaries’, and eight in ten FRSs having delivered over 80,000 food, medicine and essential packages to vulnerable persons.

In turn, three quarters provided personnel to drive ambulances and assist ambulance services, while over 70% of FRSs delivered PPE for the NHS and ambulance service; 44% also assisted with face fitting masks, and provided 4,000 to the NHS and care staff. As part of the extension of the agreement, FRSs have now also been asked to risk assess all COVID-19 response activities, ‘including those that haven’t been requested by Local Resilience Forums’, so that they are ‘ready for a second wave’.

This latest extension will last until 29 October, and risk assessments for the nationally agreed activities will be implanted locally, with the agreement able to be extended further beyond then. The FBU warned that proper risk assessments are ‘crucial’ to keep ‘heads above water’ as well as prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in FRSs, with over 75% reporting supply chain issues in late March, specifically relating to respiratory masks, hand sanitiser, wipes, cloths and coveralls.

Eight FRSs also reported issues with securing ‘essential cleaning products’ from their breathing apparatus suppliers into April, including face mask cleaning products, respirator protective equipment and other items of PPE. That same month saw nearly 3,000 personnel self isolating, but ‘at no point’ were any FRSs ‘unable to function due to absences’, with overall related absences averaging at around 1.6% of FRS personnel.

The FBU also pointed out that it is ‘not aware of any currently-serving UK firefighter who has died’ from the virus, and general secretary Matt Wrack stated: ‘As death tolls soared earlier in the year, firefighters stepped in to aid their communities in their darkest hour. With a second wave of infections now arriving, our crews are staying on high alert.

‘Much like their colleagues in the NHS, firefighters and control staff have had to pick up the pieces of a government that gutted their service with austerity and failed to prepare for the entirely foreseeable risk of a pandemic. The [FBU] has played a central role in forming the [FRSs’] response to the pandemic, ensuring the safest possible conditions for firefighters. But brigades must not be complacent about the risk to firefighters and the public – implementing risk assessments locally is crucial to keep our heads above water.’