THE FIRE Brigades Union (FBU) has said that the national employer and the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) have ‘unilaterally scrapped’ the agreement for firefighters to help the NHS during the pandemic.

In the early stages of lockdown, the NFCC, the FBU 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’. Towards the end of last year, the FBU announced that the agreement had been extended again, with FRSs preparing for the ‘second wave’.

As part of the extension of the agreement, FRSs had 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’, with that most recent extension lasting until 29 October but latterly extended again, and risk assessments for the nationally agreed activities were implanted locally, with the agreement able to be extended further beyond then.

Last December, the NFCC and Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh discussed their ‘pride’ in FRS’ response, before it was revealed that firefighters and FRSs were ‘ready to help’ with the new tasks of delivering vaccines and assisting the test and trace programme, as part of a new agreement. At the time, the FBU said this would see firefighters ‘assist other public sector organisations with track, trace and isolate measures’, as well as check that ‘potential higher risk premises are COVID-secure’.

Firefighters would inspect workplaces ‘where relevant authorities have raised concerns’ about COVID security, and the FBU was ‘encouraging anyone concerned about workplace COVID-security to raise it with their local council in the first instance’. Additionally, the FBU and national employer said FRSs were ‘open to assisting’ the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine ‘if requested’ by local resilience forums.

Firefighters were required to wait three days and receive a negative COVID-19 test before returning to FRS premises ‘when returning from pandemic duties’, and the previous agreements had become ‘much longer term than originally envisaged’, the FBU noted, so the new tasks and 14 continuing responsibilities were to ‘come under’ the jurisdiction of the National Joint Council, the ‘normal body for national industrial agreements’ for FRSs where the FBU and employers negotiate pay and conditions.

That new agreement was in place until January ‘to ensure’ that FRSs ‘comply with all safety measures’, but ‘with a view to extension beyond that’, with FRSs – between March and October – having delivered over 111,000 essential items to vulnerable people; assisted paramedics and driven ambulances at over 87,000 incidents; delivered 25,000 units of personal protective equipment; assembled 68,000 single use face masks; and packaged 32,000 food parcels.

The FBU has however now reported that FRS employers ‘have unilaterally scrapped’ the agreement, stating that negotiations over health and safety measures for firefighters ‘delivering high risk’ COVID-19 duties ‘were ongoing’ when the national employer ‘issued a communication ending the agreement’ last week. The FBU added that the decision ‘appears to be supported’ by the NFCC, and added that ‘this was done without any prior notice to firefighters or the FBU’.

The union added that the termination ‘is driven by the employers’ desire to alter previously agreed safety arrangements which protected firefighters undertaking additional work’, which saw them required to submit a negative COVID-19 test before returning to stations, ‘protecting the service from mass outbreaks by removing the risk of cross contamination’.

It pointed out that in talks the employers ‘attempted to remove this protection at a national level’, and despite the FBU offering a range of ‘alternative safety measures to enable the activities to proceed safely’, these were rejected before the employers ‘unilaterally withdrew from the agreement’. As a consequence, ‘there are now no national protections for firefighters delivering COVID-19 duties’, with the FBU calling this an ‘abdication of responsibility’ by the employers.

In turn, it added that the ‘uneven’ health and safety practices in other sectors ‘should not be repeated’ for the FRSs, and it urged the employers to ‘get back around the table so that the national agreement can be reintroduced in full’, with the FBU to speak with members before issuing further guidance.

General secretary Matt Wrack commented: ‘This irresponsible move from [FRS] employers threatens to endanger the lives of firefighters, their families, and the public. The FBU has consistently worked with employers and fire chiefs in good faith to enable firefighters to safely take on new work to help their communities through this pandemic.

‘But employers have decided to begin a race to the bottom on safety, abdicating their responsibility to keep their staff safe, and services protected from mass outbreaks. Rather than support firefighters’ life-saving work, employers have walked away from the very agreement which enabled it. By removing national safety standards, they are exposing staff and services to a deadly disease – all apparently to make a political attack on a trade union simply because we are trying to ensure work is safe.

‘Firefighters carrying out COVID-19 duties have undoubtedly saved lives and we are proud to have helped them do it safely. We deeply regret that employers have scrapped this crucial agreement and urge them to reintroduce vital national safety protections and resume talks. They should stop playing politics and get round the table to resolve this.’

Trade Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady added: ‘Firefighters are making a huge contribution to fighting the pandemic - helping the vulnerable, driving ambulances and supporting NHS and care services. But safety comes first. The consequences of Covid-19 running rampant through a local fire station and communities are too grim to contemplate. None of us know when we might need to make a 999 call.

‘By turning their back on the national safety agreement, employers and fire chiefs are turning their back on us all. They must get back to the negotiating table.’