Against a backdrop of activity around Building a Safer Future, FIRE Correspondent Catherine Levin reports on the growing impact of Coronavirus on the Fire and Rescue Service and the move to a collaborative response
The LGA Fire conference in Blackpool proved to be the last time that Fire and Rescue Service leaders would gather before Coronavirus changed the world as we know it. At this point the government was in the contain phase of managing the virus, but shortly after, on March 12, announced that it was moving to the delay phase, raising the risk to the UK from moderate to high. Washing hands was the key message and social distancing had not yet dominated people’s lives.
The next date in the fire calendar would have been the May elections where the four police fire and crime commissioners were up for re-election, although North Yorkshire PFCC Julia Mulligan and Staffordshire PFCC Matthew Ellis had already announced they would not stand again. On March 13 the government confirmed that the PCC, local and mayoral elections would be postponed until May 2021.
Fire Safety Bill
In the following week, the government published the Fire Safety Bill. It is a short Bill that amends the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 to clarify that the ‘responsible person’ or ‘duty-holder’ for multi-occupied, residential buildings must manage and reduce the risk of fire for:
- The structure and external walls of the building, including cladding, balconies and windows
- Entrance doors to individual flats that open into common parts.
Published at the very end of the parliamentary session, the Bill did not get past first reading.
During the same week, the FBU confirmed its position on non-essential outside activities. ‘In the interests of public health and public safety, all fire and rescue services should cease all outside activities other than emergency response unless there is an immediate or imminent safety imperative to undertake an inspection or other such engagement’.
And then everything changed: on March 20 the schools closed indefinitely and the all non-essential business activity ground to a halt. The impact on fire and rescue services of the school closures was mitigated by the government’s commitment for the children of essential workers to still be able to attend school.
“This is testament to the commitment and determination of all Fire and Rescue Service staff to assist during a time of crisis”
Working at pace behind the scenes, the fire and rescue services National Employers, the Fire Brigades Union and the National Fire Chiefs Council issued a joint communication on March 24. It had a specific focus on: ‘A risk-based approach to fire and rescue functions, outlining areas where contact with the public was likely to take place and the associated control measures required to protect fire and rescue employees and the public’.
A second circular, published two days later, confirmed that the key objectives for the Fire and Rescue Service during the period of the pandemic were to:
- Ensure that its operational response provision remains resilient and effective
- Support the broader public sector response to the pandemic, particularly in relation to supporting local authorities and NHS and ambulance trusts whose services are subject to exceptionally high levels of demand
- Maintain to the highest standards possible the health, safety and welfare of all its staff.
As a result of an unprecedented agreement between the three bodies, firefighter roles would be expanded to include new activities:
- Deliver essential items like food and medicines to vulnerable people
- Drive ambulances and assist ambulance staff
- Retrieve dead bodies, should the outbreak cause mass casualties.
The agreement would be for a two-month period in the first instance and could be extended or shortened if agreed between all parties. The LGA said that the three bodies would continue to: ‘Meet weekly to discuss any additional requests for assistance made by local resilience forums and strategic co-ordination groups’.
While fire and rescue services worked out whether they would be required to undertake these new activities at a local level, government continued its work on building fire safety measures. On April 2, the government published its response to the Building a Safer Future consultation as well as announcing that sprinklers would become mandatory in new high-rise blocks of flats over 11 metres.
“With the help and support of volunteers and other blue-light organisations such as the London Fire Brigade, we are able to provide more ambulances”
By April 10, the agreement was expanded to include fitting face masks to frontline NHS and clinical care staff working with Covid-19 patients. In addition, firefighters would also assist with the delivery of PPE and medical supplies to NHS hospitals and other care facilities.
London Fire Brigade shared its preparations with the London Ambulance Service using a short video posted on social media showing firefighters training at Wembley Stadium. Pauline Cranmer, Director of Ambulance Services at the London Ambulance Service, said: “It’s incredibly busy out there at the moment, and with the help and support of volunteers and other blue-light organisations such as the London Fire Brigade, we are able to provide more ambulances.”
Further negotiations between the National Employers, the NFCC and the FBU resulted in another three new areas being added to the agreement. On April 16, the list grew to include:
- 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
- Driving instruction by Fire and Rescue Service driver trainers to deliver training for non-service personnel to drive ambulances (not on blue-lights).
On the same day, the government issued a press release seeking to reassure the public that work on unsafe cladding on high-rise buildings would continue during the pandemic. The mayors of Greater Manchester, Sheffield City Region, London, Liverpool City Region and the West Midlands pledged their commitment to: ‘Improving the safety of residential blocks while also ensuring those working on site are given clear information and support to guarantee their own safety as well as limiting the spread of Covid-19’.
Like all sectors of the economy, fire and rescue services suffered from the absence of staff who were self-isolating as a result of Covid-19. The FBU reported on April 17 that Covid-19 antigen swab testing would be extended to members of the emergency services and symptomatic members of their household. Pleased that the Fire and Rescue Service was now included, the FBU stated: ‘We are awaiting further details, but it is clear that there are questions around the testing scheme that still need to be answered, particularly around capacity and accessibility’.
The list of areas of work to be undertaken by firefighters expanded again on April 23, with the addition of four further activities to the agreement:
- The assembly of single use face shields for the NHS and care work front line staff
- Packing/repacking food supplies for vulnerable people
- Known or suspected Covid-19 patients: transfer to and from Nightingale hospitals under emergency response (blue-light) or through non-emergency patient transfer (not on blue-lights)
- Non- Covid-19 patients: transfer to and from Nightingale hospitals under emergency response (blue-light) or through non-emergency patient transfer (not on blue-lights) – this includes recovering and recuperating patients no longer infected with Covid-19.
“We have seen people from every part of fire and rescue services volunteer to take on additional work to support the response to Covid-19”
Responding to the addition of these new activities, the FBU stated: ‘As with all new areas of work, the agreement is temporary for the duration of the coronavirus emergency. Appropriate PPE and risk assessments are mandatory and any personnel who do not wish to carry out the work will not be forced to do so’.
Roy Wilsher, Chair of the NFCC, praised the 4,000 fire and rescue staff volunteering to carry out these activities. He said: “This is testament to the commitment and determination of all Fire and Rescue Service staff to assist during a time of crisis. We have seen people from every part of fire and rescue services volunteer to take on additional work to support the response to Covid-19. This means we can assist the health service, ambulance trusts, social care and a range of other organisations on the front line, ensuring those who need help, receive it.”
April 23 proved to be a busy day with the Minister of State for Security, the Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP, writing to members of the LGA Fire Services Management Committee as well as the NFCC, all chief fire officers, chairs of fire authorities and the four PFCCs. He welcomed the agreement between the National Employers, the NFCC and the FBU, but the purpose of the letter was to confirm areas where burdens could be temporarily lifted to allow for a continued focus on responding to the pandemic.
The changes include:
- Removing the requirement for annual fire authority meetings to take place and for any necessary authority meetings to take place remotely
- An understanding that annual assurance statements and IRMP related publication may be delayed
- Confirming that the biennial report to parliament due in July, setting out how fire and rescue services are acting in accordance with the National Framework, will not require returns from fire and rescue services. It will be based on existing published information
- Relaxing the requirement to provide a medical report as part of the renewal of driver licences
- New guidance from HMRC to employers and employees to ensure on-call staff are not ruled ineligible for the Covid-19 loss of earnings benefit due to their secondary on-call contract of employment
- The inclusion of firefighters in the list of frontline staff eligible for Covid-19 testing where they or a member of their household has symptoms.
The letter also confirmed on-going work with the NFCC relating to the PPE supply chain and continued discussions with HM Treasury about re-engaging retired firefighters in England.
That is an inordinate amount of activity for a period that covers March 12 to the end of April. The collaborative effort between the National Employers, the NFCC and the FBU is to be commended, what they have achieved through negotiation is incredibly impressive.