Capturing the experiences of fire and rescue services as they responded to the initial phase of the pandemic provided the National Fire Chiefs Council with vital information to inform the ongoing response to Covid-19. CFO Phil Garrigan tells FIRE about the findings from this important research
From the very early days of the pandemic, the NFCC established a new committee to focus on Covid-19 response. I have the privilege of chairing this committee and have been working with colleagues from across fire and rescue services to provide support throughout the pandemic. As part of our work, we wanted to understand how fire and rescue services were adapting in all areas of their business, capturing it early on so that the learning could be shared and acted upon.
We commissioned research to look at the response to the pandemic between March and September 2020. Catherine Levin, Jim Owen and Dr Sara Waring interviewed chief fire officers or their equivalents as well as key stakeholders drawn from government, representative bodies and the Ambulance Service. The findings from these interviews form the basis of a 64-page report that is now available on the NFCC website: www.nationalfirechiefs.org.uk/. This article provides a summary of the research and its findings.
The 40-minute telephone interviews were based on a consistent question set that allowed the interviewee to explore many aspects of their organisation’s response to Covid -19. There is a huge amount of information contained in the transcripts and while the report published in December 2020 is substantial, there is likely to be further work carried out by the University of Liverpool at a future date.
The authors analysed the transcripts from the interviews with the CFOs and identified ten themes, which form the structure of the report. The findings from the stakeholder interviews are provided in a separate section. Taken together, the report then sets out key learning that emerged from the interviews and identifies whether it is from the CFOs or the stakeholders, or in some cases both. The report finishes with a set of 12 recommendations for the committee to consider. A list of interviewees is provided in the appendices.
The report starts by looking at the context of fire and rescue services as they worked with local partners to respond to the pandemic. The Local Resilience Forum (LRF) is at the heart of this effort and CFOs largely reported very positive experiences of working with local partners as emergency arrangements were put into place. The creation of the Strategic Co-ordinating Group and its supporting structures allowed the fire and rescue service to find its place and contribute to the response. The relationships built up over many years through planning and training exercises provided a solid foundation upon which to work together during a time of national crisis.
Chief fire officers had mixed feelings about the introduction of a national agreement between the NFCC, the Fire Brigades Union and the National Employers. A small number of CFOs offered only positive comment about the Tripartite Agreement and its processes. These CFOs represented a range of fire and rescue service structural types; some with more challenging local trade union relations. In others the burden of partner organisation requests for support were low or non-existent, because other suitable resources were available to support communities. In these circumstances the agreement was less exercised. Some questioned why a negotiation was needed during a national crisis, others acknowledged that it may not have been possible to negotiate some of the requested activities locally.
Some CFOs felt that the current national negotiations on broadening the role of firefighters had made the negotiation of temporary changes to terms and conditions more problematic. These and other difficulties meant some CFOs were concerned about answering requests for support from LRFs because they were unsure whether they would get local trade union agreement. This led some to prefer to deploy only Green Book staff (non-operational) in support of other agencies.
Opinions on the Tripartite Agreement appeared to vary by degree in accordance with local governance structures, the size of each fire and rescue service, the strength and quality of local industrial relationships, the mix of trade union representation, the level of experience of CFOs and the level of support being requested by partners.
Changes to the Workplace
Chief fire officers said it was important for them to be visible to staff despite the geographic dispersal of their teams into fire station ‘bubbles’ and to new working from home arrangements. That visibility was achieved through new use of virtual communication, with many fire and rescue services investing in or expanding the use of existing technologies. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WhatsApp, Workplace and other channels provided the means by which staff could keep in touch and work remotely in an effective way. Covid-19 accelerated digital transformation for many fire and rescue services.
Working from home has been largely successful, with CFOs commending the way that staff have adapted to the new way of working. They expressed concern for the health and safety of their staff, in particular the creation of home offices and provided many examples of how they have responded to issues affecting the wellbeing of staff who are separated from their normal working environment.
Many changes were put in place to increase the safety of frontline staff. Commonly, fire and rescue services locked down fire stations and control rooms very early on, well before the national lockdown. They formed bubbles for individual watches and for fire stations with new safety regimes in place to reduce the risk of infection. Control rooms were isolated to protect this work group.
Embracing Virtual Ways of Working
To assist with training and maintenance of operational competence, fire and rescue services experimented with virtual approaches and used these both with their wholetime and on-call staff. Availability levels for both wholetime and on-call staff remained high throughout.
Virtual ways of working were a recurring motif of the interviews and none more so than in prevention and protection. No longer able to visit homes and businesses, fire and rescue services have been creative in developing new ways of advising about fire risk. For example, the virtual Home Fire Safety Visit includes a remote triage to assess risk and where it has been high some fire and rescue services have still visited homes but with new Covid-safe procedures in place.
Data was mentioned by many interviewees. In some cases it was in the context of too much data, for others there was a paucity. The failure to join up in terms of how to share data between organisations or a demand for data where the end need was not clear and frustrated interviewees in equal measure.
The View From Stakeholders
During the interviews, CFOs often talked about the NFCC. There was, on the whole, a very positive response to how the NFCC had helped fire and rescue services. Examples included the creation and leadership of the Covid-19 Committee; the usefulness of the Strategic Intentions to provide a foundation for local approaches; the co-ordination of the procurement of PPE via Kent Fire and Rescue Service and the peer support provided by the NFCC coordinated weekly chiefs’ call.
Seven themes emerged from the interviews with stakeholders. Overall, stakeholders commended fire and rescue services for their ‘can-do’ attitude in seeking to support partner agencies, with driving ambulances noted as being particularly beneficial. Feedback indicated that the increased availability of on-call firefighters had helped to strengthen capacity for providing support. As with CFOs, stakeholders also highlighted the importance of effective communication and strong relationships for improving response effectiveness and for supporting staff wellbeing.
During interviews, stakeholders also talked about regional differences in the ability to source appropriate PPE, which resulted in regional disparities in when staff were able to wear PPE. While some of these difficulties reflected problems with access to PPE across public services, moving forward it was suggested that ensuring accurate data is captured across regions in relation to PPE stock and usage would help to improve central support with maintaining appropriate PPE levels.
As with CFOs, most stakeholders also had mixed feelings about the Tripartite Agreement, viewing the first few versions as beneficial for enabling support. Subsequent additions were slow to be negotiated, which often meant partners needed to find alternative solutions.
Stakeholders also noted regional differences in the range of support provided and how quickly decisions were made. Regions where relationships were well established between partners tended to make decisions quickly at a local level with the Tripartite Agreement serving as a guide. In other regions, decision making was slowed by many decisions being passed up to the Tripartite Group to be negotiated due to concerns about not getting local trade union agreement.
The feedback also highlighted that a lack of consultation across all unions resulted in large numbers of firefighters and Green Book staff being affected by an agreement they had no representation in developing. Some stakeholders suggested that now a fairly comprehensive set of agreements, risk assessments and training exist, support may be quicker to implement in future.
Capturing the Learning
The key learning section provides a rich source of experience for fire and rescue services to consider as they continue to respond to the pandemic, albeit during a different phase now. Some of it is very specific to response, but some will be useful for the transition to what is commonly called the “new normal”.
The report concludes with a set of 12 recommendations that loosely follow the structure of the report. The authors suggest that the role of the Fire and Rescue Service within the LRF structures is reaffirmed to allow it to thrive and contribute to full effect. For any future nationally significant events, any national agreements should be kept to a set of principles or strategic objectives based on the needs of LRFs. Agreements should include consultation with all relevant representative bodies. There is also a recommendation about how the NFCC should operate when there is a nationally significant event that affects all fire and rescue services as well as one that builds on the learning from the Consensus Statement developed between the NFCC and AACE.
The recommendations also cover business continuity arrangements and in particular how to maintain the resilience of staff for extended periods of time. The long-term impact of those changes offers the opportunity to review and rationalise Fire and Rescue Service premises and estate with a view to making savings. Learning from virtual approaches in many areas of Fire and Rescue Service business is also the focus of some of the recommendations, along with a look at how data can be better used to inform decision-making. The pandemic also offers an opportunity for fire and rescue services to take a fresh look at the recruitment of on-call staff.
The findings in this report capture an important point in Fire and Rescue Service history and are a useful contribution to the evolution of Fire and Rescue Service response and eventual recovery from the pandemic. More immediately, the key learning can be used by fire and rescue services to assist adaptations to the ongoing response at a local level. The recommendations are being looked at by the Covid-19 Committee to ensure that their implementation is properly considered and integrated into the broader strategic work on Fit for the Future.