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State of the Union

27 March 2017

Matt Wrack praises the work of firefighters who have taken part in Emergency Medical Responding but warns that the long-term continuation of the scheme isn’t feasible without additional government support.

IN MARCH, I spent a day with union members at Trowbridge fire station in Wiltshire where I got to see our firefighters in action, demonstrating the professionalism and high calibre expertise the public rightly expects from them. This included specialist line rescue work, which has developed incredibly from what was in place when I joined the fire service.

The role of firefighters has expanded and evolved much over the years. In the 1950s, it was unusual for firefighters to turn out to RTCs but nowadays it is part of their bread and butter work. Now, the FBU is involved in one of the biggest debates that could shape the future of the union and the service – that of Emergency Medical Responding (EMR). The debate so far has been one of the most intense the union has ever had, and for good reason. EMR would mark a major change of direction in the role and work of firefighters. For more than 18 months, 38 out of 50 fire and rescue services have been trialling various schemes where firefighters respond to medical emergencies. 

There have been some really positive outcomes and we can confidently say that lives have been saved as a result of this work.  Firefighters during the trials attended more than 42,000 co-responding incidents – of these, 4,000 were cardiac arrests. For all incidents, from time sensitive life threatening cases to less urgent ones, firefighters arrived almost nine minutes ahead of ambulances.

An independent report from the University of Hertfordshire into the trials, commissioned by the National Joint Council, has found that firefighters attending life threatening medical emergencies arrived on the scene first in 93% of cases.  What isn’t such good news is that as soon as ambulance services know firefighters have attended, they are in some instances re-routing to other emergencies, often leaving our members to deal with medical events such as catastrophic bleeds that they aren’t trained to deal with. They are also being left to tell relatives when loved ones have died at the scene, a task they may also not be qualified to do. These kinds of situations, our members tell us, are putting them under immense stress. It has also emerged that many of the managers who are organising the pilots within fire and rescue services have never attended an EMR call, so they have no idea what sort of work it involves. 

Firefighters’ wellbeing

Concerns about health and safety and the mental wellbeing of our members doing EMR were at the forefront of debates we had at a special recall conference in Blackpool in March. Delegates revealed that while inoculations against Hepatitis B and other infection risks were being made available in some regions, firefighters in other areas had no access to these important vaccinations. Meanwhile members doing this work during the trials, which can’t last forever, are seeing no remuneration at all in their pay packets, made more painful by the imposition of a virtual pay freeze for eight years.  

Delegates nonetheless, following the vigorous debates, voted to continue with the trials while the union negotiates with employers on both health and safety and pay. The union believes that EMR could offer a mechanism to tackle the stagnation of pay.  Following the debates, members voted by 22,811 (represented by their delegates) to 12,937 to allow the trials to continue – subject to certain criteria. 

If EMR is to succeed beyond the trials and is to be sustainable, this critical work needs proper funding and urgent attention to the health and safety issues that our members have reported.  We met with employers the day after the one day conference where we made it clear that the issue of pay also needs to be progressed by the 1st July. The trials must have an end date of November at the very latest, and they will end sooner if nothing is revolved by the time of our annual conference in May. 

Delegates at our recall conference had positive and negative things to say about the pilots. Some said the work had helped stations to stay open as the majority of call outs were EMR calls. Others said we are in danger of over committing firefighters if we agree to do EMR. It has saved lives, but governments across the UK have to act soon if this invaluable work is to be extended beyond the trials. 

The phrase ‘mission creep’ was used often during our recall conference – the trials start out demanding one thing, the remit expands bit by bit and before we know it firefighters are taking on numerous tasks that were never mentioned at the outset, areas of work they are not prepared or trained for. This is dangerous, wrong, unprofessional and goes against the grain of everything the public and our members deserve.