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“Dangerous” FRS breathing apparatus policy “in doubt” as HSE investigates

21 August 2023

THE FIRE Brigades Union (FBU) has welcomed moves by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to investigate a new breathing apparatus policy in the Fire and Rescue Service, which the Trade Union has branded “dangerous and irresponsible” and “one of the biggest threats to firefighters’ Health and Safety in decades”.

In high-rise building fires, the Fire and Rescue Service crew members on scene will establish a ‘bridgehead’ in a safe position within the building. Before proceeding towards the fire, firefighters undertake a series of checks and then activate their breathing apparatus1.

However, according to the FBU, proposals put forward by the National Fire Chiefs Council would mean firefighters being instructed to proceed without activating that apparatus.

The FBU claims this would put firefighters “at risk of being overwhelmed by smoke or other hazards” before they could put on their breathing apparatus and would also mean increased exposure to toxic fire contaminants.

Fire authorities serving London, Birmingham and Manchester have already said that they will not implement the policy, but others have indicated that they will push ahead.

Letter of complaint  

The FBU wrote to the HSE in May last year to complain about the proposed policy. It took more than a year for the HSE to respond, at which point the regulator expressed the view that this issue didn’t fall within its remit2.

However, the FBU has asserted that the HSE is now performing a U-turn and will be investigating the new breathing apparatus policy. In a letter to the FBU, the public body conceded that its approach to the matter thus far had been inadequate and has apologised to the Trade Union on that basis3.

In the meantime, the FBU has issued advice to its members not to put themselves in danger by going beyond the bridgehead without activating their breathing apparatus4.

Proper investigation

Ben Selby, assistant general secretary at the FBU, explained: “We welcome the fact that the HSE has seen sense and decided to investigate this issue properly. The delays and buck-passing that we’ve faced while trying to raise an urgent matter of safety were unacceptable and it’s positive that the HSE has reflected on this. Fire and Rescue Services should now ditch this dangerous and irresponsible policy once and for all.”

Riccardo la Torre, the FBU’s national officer, observed: “The proposed change to breathing apparatus safety procedures is one of the biggest threats to firefighters’ Health and Safety in decades. We will continue to hold the HSE to account and challenge any Fire and Rescue Service that tries to implement this practice. We are prepared to take whatever action is necessary to stop this policy from continuing.”

He concluded: “Our advice to members remains the same: as professional firefighters and breathing apparatus wearers, they should not put themselves in a position of danger above the bridgehead with non-activated breathing apparatus.”


1Information about the FBU’s campaign for breathing apparatus safety: https://www.fbu.org.uk/campaigns/breathing-apparatus-safety 

2The original FBU letter to the HSE raising the issue: https://www.fbu.org.uk/sites/default/files/Campaigns/Letter%20to%20HSE%20from%20the%20Fire%20Brigades%20Union%20-%2027%20May%202022.pdf 

3The HSE’s response apologising to the FBU: https://www.fbu.org.uk/sites/default/files/Campaigns/Reply%20to%20FBU%20letter%20dated%2031%20May%202023%20060623%20.pdf 

4The FBU’s circular advising members not to put themselves in a position of danger above the bridgehead with non-activated breathing apparatus: https://www.fbu.org.uk/circulars/2023hoc0389mw/ba-safety-campaign-health-safety-executive-complaint