THE FIRE Brigades Union (FBU) reported that a new agreement between the union and the national employer will see firefighters help to deliver vaccines and assist the test and trace programme’.

In the early stages of lockdown, the National Fire Chiefs Council (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’. More recently, 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.

Most recently, the NFCC and Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh discussed their ‘pride’ in FRS’ response and now the FBU has stated that firefighters and FRSs are ‘ready to help’ with the new tasks of delivering vaccines and assisting the test and trace programme, as part of a new agreement between the union and the national employer.

The FBU noted that the agreement will 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 will inspect workplaces ‘where relevant authorities have raised concerns’ about COVID security, and the FBU is ‘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 that FRSs were ‘open to assisting’ the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine ‘if requested’ by local resilience forums, with firefighters required to wait three days and receive a negative COVID-19 test before returning to FRS premises ‘when returning from pandemic duties’.

The previous agreements had become ‘much longer term than originally envisaged’, the FBU noted, and as a result the new tasks and 14 continuing responsibilities will ‘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. This new agreement is in place until January ‘to ensure’ that FRSs ‘comply with all safety measures’, but ‘with a view to extension beyond that’.

Finally, the FBU shared the assistance that FRSs provided between March and October, including delivering over 111,000 essential items to vulnerable people; assisting paramedics and driving ambulances at over 87,000 incidents; delivering 25,000 units of personal protective equipment; assembling 68,000 single use face masks; and packaging 32,000 food parcels.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, stated: ‘This year has been an extraordinary one for the [FRSs], with firefighters stepping up and doing more to tackle the pandemic than could previously have been imagined. We finally have a COVID-19 vaccine and, having already helped so many in their communities through this pandemic, firefighters will want to do their bit to help roll out mass vaccination.

‘We are still in the midst of the second wave of this pandemic and cannot be complacent about the serious risks posed by coronavirus. That’s why we are expanding this crucial work, offering to assist with track and trace and to check that higher-risk premises are COVID-secure. It remains as crucial as ever to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in [FRSs]– and that means taking proper precautionary measures, including testing and isolation, to make sure firefighters don’t get sick when protecting the public.’