A REPORT from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Service (HMICFRS) claimed the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) ‘stopped firefighters helping’ with COVID-19 support actions.

In the early stages of lockdown, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), the FBU and the national employer confirmed additional activities to assist other key services 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.

Last 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 antigen testing, driving non blue light ambulance transport and non COVID patients, and training others to drive ambulances. Also in April, it was revealed that over 4,000 FRS staff had volunteered to assist, while a further 10,000 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. Later that month, the NFCC confirmed FRSs would ‘work with local partners to support care homes’, and then confirmed that the agreements were ‘extended’.

The agreement was extended again in late July, and towards the end of last year extended again, with FRSs preparing for the ‘second wave’. FRSs had been asked to risk assess all activities, ‘including those that haven’t been requested by Local Resilience Forums’, with risk assessments for nationally agreed activities implanted locally, and the agreement able to be extended further.

Last December, the NFCC and Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh discussed their ‘pride’ in the FRS response, before it was revealed FRSs were ‘ready to help’ with 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 check that ‘potential higher risk premises are COVID-secure’, inspecting workplaces ‘where relevant authorities have raised concerns’ about COVID security.

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’, 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 pay and conditions are negotiated.

That new agreement was in place until January, but ‘with a view to extension beyond that’. However, last week the FBU announced that the national employer and the NFCC had ‘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’.

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’, claiming that the termination ‘is driven by the employers’ desire to alter previously agreed safety arrangements which protected firefighters undertaking additional work’, including submitting a negative test before returning to stations, ‘protecting the service from mass outbreaks by removing the risk of cross contamination’.

It said 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.

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. Now however, The Guardian has reported on the HMICFRS’ investigation, which said that the FBU ‘hampered efforts’ for FRS assistance ‘with outdated and unnecessary practices’.

These included asking firefighters ‘not to volunteer to support’ the test and trace system or the vaccination programme, and the report added that the FBU-NFCC-employers agreement became ‘more of a hindrance than a help’. It was said to have ‘prevented or delayed’ some chief fire officers from ‘deploying the right people with the right skills to better support communities’, HMICFRS claiming the FBU insisted on ‘tortuous’ negotiations for ‘every single additional duty requested’.

This led to ‘significant delays and in some cases refusal to help’, and Zoe Billingham – inspector of FRSs – said that ‘as a direct result of the position the trade union adopted, the ability of the [FRS] to deploy firefighters into potentially life-saving activities was limited and delayed’. HMICFRS said the FBU was ‘currently telling members not to volunteer with the vaccine rollout’, with Ms Billingham calling this ‘deeply regrettable’.

She added that ‘it’s not what the public expect of the fire service they generally hold in such high admiration, and we doubt it’s what firefighters want either; they’re dedicated, public-spirited professionals who told us they want to help’. HMICFRS revealed that Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service was asked to help with test and trace locally by going door to door to notify contacts, but negotiations took 12 weeks, ‘throughout which time’ it ‘could not assist’.

In turn, HMICFRS said that the FBU told firefighters ‘not to deliver food parcels to people who were shielding because it did not fall within the agreement negotiated’, and Ms Billingham stated that it was ‘not appropriate’ for the FBU to ‘have been given the ability to delay or veto’ the ‘reasonable and safe deployment’ of firefighters to assist the public during a national emergency.

Responding, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack commented: ‘This report is a political and biased attack on firefighters. It is neither evidence based nor an independent report and is instead full of untruths and omissions and we totally reject it. While firefighters are out tackling fires, floods and the pandemic, the HMICFRS didn’t even have the courtesy to speak to or provide us in advance with a copy of their report, which was passed to us by a journalist.

‘The FBU has from the start wholeheartedly supported the response to the pandemic, and as a result of agreements delivered by the union, firefighters have been able to take on significant areas of additional work including driving ambulances, moving the bodies of the deceased and delivering vital supplies to the NHS and care sector and vulnerable people in our communities.

‘But the message from this report is clear: fire chiefs and the government don’t want workers to have a voice over their own safety or their terms and conditions. That’s why employers, advised by fire chiefs, tore up a national agreement containing vital safety measures. This report is being used to undermine a trade union they consider a nuisance because it wants to keep its members safe.

‘It is remarkable that in the same breath the inspectorate claims the FBU produced “unnecessarily detailed” safety requirements and also that large staff absences driven by outbreaks “didn’t materialise” in the [FRS]. How does the inspectorate think these outbreaks were prevented? It was a direct result of paying serious attention to workplace safety by the FBU and its members.

‘It is also wrong to say that the FBU asked firefighters not to volunteer to support the vaccination programme. On 9 December, the FBU and employers signed an agreement that said should a request be received for support with vaccinations, that both parties “will move quickly to support such a request”.

‘Our priorities throughout this pandemic have been to ensure firefighters can safely support their communities, the NHS, and the care sector. That means protecting their health but also the services they work in which continue to respond to emergencies A service with 11,000 fewer firefighters than a decade ago cannot afford for this virus to run rampant through fire stations.

‘The FBU wants firefighters to continue supporting the pandemic response but sadly it seems the inspectorate, doing the bidding of the government and fire chiefs, is more intent on attacking our trade union and helping to undermine the terms and conditions of firefighters.’