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Fire and Rescue Services to take on more activities in fight against COVID-19

19 April 2020

FIRE AND Rescue Services staff will be carrying out COVID-19 antigen testing, driving non-blue light ambulance transport and carrying out ambulance driver training as they bid to transact more activities and help to fight back against the Coronavirus pandemic.

These tasks are in addition to other activities already agreed in a groundbreaking agreement forged between the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), national employers and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).

Specifically, the three organisations have agreed on the following additional activities: assisting in taking samples for COVID-19 antigen testing, driving ambulance transport not on blue lights (excluding known COVID-19 patients) to outpatient appointments or to receive urgent care and driving instruction by Fire and Rescue Services driver trainers to deliver training for non-service personnel to drive ambulances (not on blue lights).

NFCC chairman Roy Wilsher said: “Once again, we see our Fire and Rescue Services staff being ready, willing and able to take on additional work to support the response to COVID-19. Their dedication and commitment is outstanding. Staff want to be at the heart of the response, using their wide range of skills and capabilities. Services want to support communities across the UK, which the public quite rightly expect us to do. By working together, we're playing our part in supporting the COVID-19 response and making sure we can offer a world-class response to the public, the National Health Service (NHS) and other partners.”

He added: “We look forward to carrying out this work, while also continuing to respond to major incidents and carrying out other vital tasks, among them core duties.”

Other work being carried out by Fire and Rescue Services staff includes carrying out face fitting for masks (to be used by frontline NHS and clinical staff); delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies; assisting the ambulance service with driving and patient/ambulance support; moving deceased people and supporting the most vulnerable through deliveries. Further activities are also under discussion.

COVID-19 testing for firefighters

Fire and Rescue Services staff in England are to undergo testing for COVID-19 with immediate effect. The news was announced on Friday 17 April. This follows on from an agreement between the NFCC, the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care.

The swab tests will confirm if front line staff have contracted Coronavirus. This means Fire and Rescue Services staff who test negative for COVID-19 can return to front line work as soon as possible, thereby reducing the risk of spreading the virus to members of the public and colleagues. 

Test locations which have been opened across the UK will ensure as many front line staff as possible can be tested. Additional centres will also be set up.

In some instances, members of a given household will also be eligible to undergo the tests, such as when staff are self-isolating as someone in the home is suffering from COVID-19 symptoms.

Roy Wilsher stated: “I'm delighted with this announcement. We have been in talks with the Home Office on the issue of testing for some time now. It's essential that we can test as many of our front line Fire and Rescue Services staff as possible. This means fire services can concentrate on doing what they do best. In short, supporting the communities they serve and assisting in the fight against COVID-19. This testing will support the additional duties Fire and Rescue Services staff are currently undertaking.”

In a statement from the Government, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I can expand the eligibility for testing to the police, the fire service, prison staff, critical local authority staff, the judiciary and DWP staff who need it. We're able to do that because of the scale-up of testing.”

View from the FBU

Also responding to the Government's announcement, Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, said: “We’re pleased to see that the Government has listened to the FBU and finally agreed to open up some testing to other key workers, including Fire and Rescue Services personnel. However, it's a shame it has come this late, with thousands of firefighters already self-isolating. This is a situation that could have been easily avoided.”

Wrack went on to state: “We are awaiting further details, but it's clear that there are questions around the functioning of the scheme that's now open to more key workers. The Health Secretary has said that fewer NHS staff were coming forward to be tested than hoped, but this is surely an issue of accessibility rather than one of front line staff not wanting to be tested. Many of the testing centres are far out of town and require extended trips in a car. If this is a barrier to nursing staff, then it follows that it will also be a barrier to other key workers.” 

Further, Wrack observed: “It's also clear that this testing scheme will only identify the virus in those individuals presenting symptoms or living with others who are. Many key workers who've been exposed through their work will have contracted the virus yet remain asymptomatic. Frequent and accessible testing of key workers who are at high risk of exposure is also needed to reduce the risk of the virus spreading in workplaces.”  

In conclusion, Wrack commented: “To ensure that Fire and Rescue Services and other vital services can continue to operate in this crisis, we don’t just need access to these testing schemes. We must also see the capacity of the schemes themselves increase. More tests need to be made available full stop.”