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HMICFRS report praises Fire and Rescue Services for COVID-19 response

26 January 2021

FIRE AND Rescue Services across the nation have been praised for their response to COVID-19 in a national report published by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS). Personnel have demonstrated how they’re ready, willing and able to step up and support the battle against the Coronavirus outbreak with local communities at the very heart of their work.

The 40-page report on the 45 Fire and Rescue Services in England, commissioned by Home Secretary Priti Patel and entitled ‘Responding to the Pandemic’, states: “Overall, Fire and Rescue Services have responded very well to the [COVID-19] outbreak. Services have maintained – and continue to maintain – their ability to respond to fires and other emergencies in these extraordinary times.”

The role of on-call firefighters in particular has been highlighted by HMICFRS, including their support for the ambulance service, delivering provisions to vulnerable people and covering staff absences. Equally, non-front line staff have stepped up to the mark, carrying out work which was way outside the remit of their normal roles. That work has involved delivering prescriptions, visiting isolated members of local communities and packing and distributing food for those individuals who’ve been required to shield.

“Outdated and restrictive practices”

According to the report, however, some Fire and Rescue Services were unable to maximise the degree of support offered due to “outdated and restrictive working practices” within the sector. This “caused delays” in terms of how some Fire and Rescue Services provided active backing for local initiatives.

HMICFRS comments: “Some firefighters were also asked by their Trade Union, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), not to volunteer to support the NHS ‘Test and Trace’ system and the COVID-19 vaccination programme.”

The report finds that the agreement put in place between the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), the Fire and Rescue Service National Employers and the FBU, itself aimed at making provisions for firefighters such that they could do more to support their local communities, became “more of a hindrance than a help” for some Fire and Rescue Services. “This agreement prevented or delayed some chief fire officers from deploying the right people with the right skills to better support communities when they were most in need of help.”

Zoë Billingham, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services, said: “Our inspection showed an inspiring willingness from Fire and Rescue Service staff to step up and provide any support they could to help communities during these unprecedented times. I want to thank all those who have done so for their efforts in carrying out essential and often distressing duties, while always demonstrating their commitment to putting the safety of the public first.”

Billingham continued: “We now need to see the sector match these individual efforts by removing the unnecessary barriers which are preventing firefighters from providing further support when it’s so desperately needed. Chief fire officers should be unhindered in their ability to deploy their workforce rapidly, safely and effectively in order to protect the public.”

In conclusion, Billingham urged: “I’m calling on those responsible to act in the national interest, remove the barriers and ensure that dedicated firefighters can now use of all their considerable skills where they’re most needed in our collective fight against COVID-19. Members of the public would rightly expect every one of the Emergency Services and their personnel to be doing everything within their power to tackle this pandemic.”

Failure to reach agreement

As reported by Fire Safety Matters on Monday 18 January, the Fire and Rescue Service National Employers and the FBU failed to reach a national agreement for the continuation and expansion of the additional support Fire and Rescue Services can provide for their communities during the pandemic. This includes how Fire and Rescue Services can support the national vaccination programme.

This is despite the Fire and Rescue Service National Employers confirming that all Fire and Rescue Service staff would be provided with the same Health and Safety safeguards as the other agencies – such as the National Health Service (NHS) – whom they’re supporting. The HMICFRS has stated that it will be “closely monitoring the consequences” of this situation.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Roy Wilsher (chair of the NFCC) said: “The Fire and Rescue Service has shown once again that it’s prepared to take on challenges alongside blue light services and other partner agencies. We have seen staff go above and beyond the call of duty, taking on many more roles in the fight against the pandemic, and often in very challenging circumstances. I could not be more proud of what many firefighters and Fire and Rescue Service staff have done, and will continue to do every day until the pandemic is over.”

Wilsher explained: “However, staff were met with challenges which impacted the work they could undertake due to the national tripartite agreement becoming too prescriptive. It did enable activities to start, but ultimately impacted the extent and speed at which activities could be implemented.”

According to the NFCC’s leader: “The inspiring range of activities transacted comes as no surprise. From driving ambulances, offering ambulance driving instruction, delivering essential items to vulnerable people, delivering PPE and face-fitting PPE masks for front line NHS workers through to the harrowing task of the movement of bodies of those who sadly died from the virus, all of this dedicated work has been truly humbling.”

Safety of staff and the public

The safety of members of staff and the public continues to be at the heart of all COVID-related work. Chief fire officers have ensured that no work has been undertaken without the right safety measures in place. All staff are afforded the same safeguards as those whom they’re working alongside. This has been incorporated within the model risk assessments provided to every Fire and Rescue Service.

“Activity has by no means slowed down,” asserted Wilsher. “Each day brings new challenges. The work of the Fire and Rescue Services is now increasingly focused on supporting the vaccination programme, ranging from hosting and helping to set up new vaccination hubs through to supporting those receiving the vaccine.”

HMICFRS’ report highlights the NFCC’s role during the pandemic, citing its leadership, clear lines of communication with the Government and the “wealth of guidance” offered by the organisation.

In response, Wilsher said: “Fire and Rescue Services should be praised for their outstanding work, yet we recognise the Inspectorate’s findings and the fact that the tripartite process became too slow to react to local requests for assistance.”

This agreement was intended to be a framework to support the response to the pandemic, but it became “too prescriptive and cumbersome” resulting in additional responsibilities having to be negotiated at a national level.

On that note, Wilsher commented: “While the agreement began well as work started, the FBU soon insisted that everything had to be negotiated at a national level. The NFCC and the National Employers worked with this approach to keep the agreement going, but ultimately it took too long to negotiate basic activities, in turn slowing down the pandemic response for many Fire and Rescue Services. I believe this was as frustrating to local Trade Union officials as it was for chief officers and their staff.”

Further, Wilsher commented: “This led to many previously nationally agreed activities proving difficult to implement at the local level. By becoming too prescriptive, the agreement didn’t always support chief fire officers to do what they do best. In short, run their Fire and Rescue Services and respond to the pandemic with a clear focus on the safety of their staff and the public.”

FBU responds to “political and biased” report

Responding to the annual report from HMICFRS, Matt Wrack (FBU general secretary) said: “This report is a political and biased attack on firefighters. It’s neither evidence based nor an independent report and is instead full of untruths and omissions. 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 us or provide us with an advance copy of its report prior to publication.”

Wrack went on to state: “From the outset, the FBU has wholeheartedly supported the response to the pandemic. As a result of agreements delivered by the Trade 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. However, 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 National 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 to be a nuisance because it wants to keep its members safe.”

He continued: “It’s 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 Fire and Rescue Service. How does the Inspectorate think these outbreaks were prevented? It was as a direct result of the FBU and its members paying serious attention to workplace safety.”

Wrack added: “It’s 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, both parties ‘will move quickly to support such a request’.”

According to Wrack, the FBU’s 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 Fire and Rescue Service they work within which continue to respond to emergencies A Fire and Rescue Service with 11,000 fewer firefighters than a decade ago cannot afford for this virus to run rampant through fire stations.”

In conclusion, Wrack observed: “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.”

Previous review

The new HMICFRS report on the Fire and Rescue Service response to COVID-19 follows the Inspectorate’s previous review of the sector in 2018, which made six recommendations for the fire sector to encourage it to modernise and improve its service to the public.

These recommendations included establishing a better standardisation of practice, the need for more clarity on the role of Fire and Rescue Services and their staff, a consideration of whether the arrangements governing staff Terms and Conditions remain appropriate and providing greater operational independence for chief fire officers.

As the latest report stresses, these previously identified issues remain and, suggests HMICFRS, need to be addressed “as a matter of urgency”.

*Read the HMICFRS report in full here