THE NATIONAL Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) has commented on the assistance being given by a number of fire and rescue services (FRSs) across the country to help with vaccinations, testing and other support activities.

In the early stages of lockdown, the NFCC, the Fire Brigades Union (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, in January 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. Most recently, a report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Service (HMICFRS) claimed the FBU ‘stopped firefighters helping’ with COVID-19 support actions - this was contested by the FBU, which called the report ‘a political and biased attack on firefighters’.

The NFCC has now reported on the actions of Merseyside FRS (MFRS), Lancashire FRS (LFRS) and Cumbria FRS (CFRS) in aiding the vaccination effort; Kent FRS, Hertfordshire FRS (HFRS), Surrey FRS (SFRS) and MFRS on assisting with track and trace in relation to the South African variant of COVID-19; and Mid and West Wales FRS (MWWFRS), North Wales FRS (NWFRS) and South Wales FRS (SWFRS) for assisting ambulance services during the pandemic.

Over 150 MFRS staff, including firefighters and support staff, have ‘stepped forward’ to assist with the vaccination programme and fitting masks for key workers, alongside administrative support and actually delivering immunisations ‘as the vaccination programme gathers pace’. MFRS put out a call for volunteers and was ‘inundated with offers of support’ internally, with staff understanding ‘the pressure colleagues are facing’ and wanting ‘to be part of the solution’.

Training will be delivered by the NHS and St John’s Ambulance, as both ‘face-to-face and electronic learning’, with safeguards in place to ensure volunteer safety and that ‘highly skilled and professionally trained vaccinators’ are assisting. MFRS staff have been helping communities across the region with prescription and food parcel deliveries, food bank and mass testing site assistance.

LFRS is helping out on 22 sites seven days a week, having helped vaccinate over 50,000 people ‘so far’, while CFRS has helped support a mass vaccination centre in Kendal, with staff helping to organise volunteers. Firefighter Nathan Haynes said: ‘This is an opportunity to directly join the fight against COVID. The virus has affected so many lives across the UK, which is why I feel it is important to offer my support within the community of Merseyside.

‘COVID has presented individuals and communities with both physical and mental challenges that have never been faced before. It has been the result of families and friends becoming disconnected at a time where loved ones are needed most. For me personally a family member was recently admitted to hospital and understandably, we were unable to visit and support them during such a tough time, a situation that has affected so many.

‘To be able to contribute in making steps towards stopping the spread of COVID with the hope of regaining regular human interaction is a great opportunity.’

MFRS group manager Mark Thomas added: ‘It is truly incredible and huge credit to all of our staff that we are able to offer such support to our Health colleagues right when the country needs it most. We have worked extremely closely with partners to ensure our staff are working in the right place with the right people following the right training.

‘We know that this support will directly help some of the most vulnerable people in Merseyside – our staff should be rightly proud of their contribution.’ The FRSs assisting with testing to help ‘combat the spread’ of the South African variant have been taking part in door to door testing, specifically KFRS in Maidstone, with firefighters and non operational staff volunteering to help.

SFRS meanwhile is also playing a similarly ‘key role’ in delivering tests door to door, with two fire stations in Woking and Egham used as delivery hubs for tests, while SFRS is also deploying equipment to support the operation, including large and small air shelters at key sites, and providing vehicles and staff for packing, storage and logistic delivery support.

In Hertfordshire, HFRS is coordinating distribution and collection of home test kits, as well as undertaking door to door visits, with over 2,000 of 17,000 kits distributed last week. MFRS has also been ‘working in this area’ of the response in Southport.

NFCC chair Roy Wilsher stated: ‘This is yet another example of how the UKFRS can be at the centre of the response to COVID-19, ensuring help and assistance is given where it is needed the most. Within a short time of the new variant being discovered, [FRSs] within these areas had local arrangements in place and were working closely with partners to ensure logistical and practical help was on hand.’

Finally, the three Welsh FRSs were ‘praised’ by the NFCC for ‘their hard work and commitment’ in supporting local ambulance colleagues at the Welsh Ambulance Service Trust (WAST), with all three providing volunteers to undertake support roles. MWWFRS staff have undertaken 349 shifts and 4,105 hours or work in the last eight months, while four staff at NWFRS began support in December 2020 and have carried out 128 ambulance driving shifts or around 1,536 hours of cover.

Finally, SWFRS volunteers have been helping since last July, with 4,560 hours of support over 380 shifts. Mr Wilsher added: ‘I am immensely proud of crews in Wales for offering this vital support during COVID-19, while continuing to respond to emergencies. WAST colleagues have expressed their appreciation for the FRS support which has allowed them to increase their capacity and effectively carry out their essential emergency work.

‘I am grateful too, to all FRS staff that have supported their local ambulance service during the pandemic and who have gained extra skills and insight as a result of this additional activity. This commitment to their communities during such a critical time is typical of Fire and Rescue Services and a true reflection of their continued humanity and care.’

MWWFRS chief fire officer Chris Davies commented: ‘The three [FRSs] in Wales have been working in partnership with the Welsh Ambulance Service for the last 20 years so it was only natural that we continued that support by providing driver resilience and ensuring our operational staff are on hand to drive non-blue light vehicles.

‘I am very proud of all of the Welsh FRS colleagues who have stepped forward and come together as one team to undertake this vital duty and I am grateful to WAST for providing the appropriate training that has allowed staff to be mobilised as needed. Also, as of this week, Welsh firefighters have been assisting health boards to enhance the roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine to their communities.

‘I am delighted that we have been able to fulfil a request for assistance from our partners to assist with the transportation of people within their communities to and from Mass vaccination centres, set up to assist in the administering of the COVID-19 vaccination.’