As the efforts to vaccinate people are ramped up across the country, FIRE Correspondent Catherine Levin takes a look at fire and rescue services’ evolving response to the Covid-19 pandemic
‘We ask you to find as many volunteers across your service as possible and to encourage them to support mass testing and vaccination efforts across the country’
This is the clarion call from the Home Secretary and Fire Minister, writing to chief fire officers last month. It is an upbeat letter with plenty of recognition of the efforts by fire and rescue services to support their local communities in the myriad ways set out in the tripartite agreements and beyond. It concludes: ‘I know you will do all you can to ensure fire and rescue services play their part in responding to [the pandemic]. On behalf of the British people, we thank you’.
The timing is interesting, as will become clear below.
Getting involved in the roll-out of vaccinations is the latest in a series of Covid-related activities carried out by firefighters and other Fire and Rescue Service employees. It puts them squarely in the centre of the enormous efforts to get the UK back up and running to some semblance of normality.
Anticipating approval of the vaccines, the National Fire Chiefs Council made it clear in November 2020 that they were fully supportive of firefighters assisting the roll-out. With the government allowing non-healthcare professionals to get involved, it meant that when the The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approved the Pfizer, Oxford and Moderna vaccines through December and January, the Fire and Rescue Service could help right from the start.
The Sun newspaper celebrated the inclusion of fire and rescue services in its inimitable style with the headline: ‘Pfizer Man Sam – Firefighters will help roll-out 1 million Covid vaccines A DAY in record breaking NHS push’. It was accompanied by a picture of Fireman Sam holding a hypodermic needle.
On December 9, a new agreement between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the Fire Service employers allowed firefighters to assist in the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine. An FBU news release said: ‘The latest agreement is initially in place until January, to ensure that brigades comply with all safety measures with a view to extension beyond that’. Throughout December, there was a review of the risk assessments required for the new activity.
By mid-January, it all changed. While fire and rescue services shared what they were doing to assist the vaccination roll-out, the FBU announced on January 15: ‘Fire and rescue services have unilaterally scrapped a ground-breaking agreement with the FBU which had enabled firefighters to assist the NHS and care sector response to Covid-19’.
The National Employers sent a Circular (EMP/1/21) to fire and rescue authorities two days before the FBU announcement. It said intensive discussions had been taking place over the previous month and that the National Employers had asked the NFCC to provide operational advice to them on the content of risk assessments for these new activities.
At the heart of the disagreement is the issue of parity. The National Employers position is that the firefighters carrying out vaccination and/or testing activities should have the same level of protection as the healthcare workers doing the same job. So, if they are tested once a week, then the firefighters would be tested once a week. The FBU want a national minimum standard of safety that includes a period of self-isolation and testing before returning to station for operational duties. These positions are incompatible.
In the Circular published on January 19, the FBU said that the National Employers press release issued alongside the Circular was: ‘Inaccurate and misleading’. It went on: ‘The scrapping of the agreement by the employers is a reckless act by them and demonstrates a dangerous lack of concern for the safety and wellbeing of firefighters’. The result is that there is no national agreement for the vaccination roll-out activities, nor for the other activities set out in the previous agreements.
The matter remained unresolved as FIRE went to print.
The number of people being vaccinated was close to five million at the time of writing: it is an epic ambition to vaccinate everyone in the country and the Fire and Rescue Service should be at the centre of the effort to get this done.
Notwithstanding the continued stand-off between the FBU and the National Employers, fire and rescue services are making some early contributions to the vaccination roll-out. Here is a round-up of what some fire and rescue services have been doing so far.
In the second week of January, there was a flurry of social media activity from Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service who shared in detail what they were doing to contribute to the work of their regional NHS. Steve Healey is the new Deputy Chief Officer, and he shared his thoughts on how it is going. “I only joined Lancashire two weeks ago and straight away I’ve been struck by the positive ‘can do’ attitude of our staff. I’m so incredibly proud that we have over 200 volunteers involved in the vaccination programme. Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service has been involved for over a month now; more and more firefighters are coming forward to volunteer and help. We have been guiding and supporting the vulnerable through the vaccination centres and now have over 50 staff trained to deliver the vaccinations. We are doing what we do best by helping our community as we all try to get through this difficult time together.”
The infographic above provides a quick summary of the numbers involved and how fire and rescue services contribute to the effort to deal with Covid-19. Two weeks in and the numbers have ticked up from 100 staff volunteering in the first week to 224 the week after.
During the same period, Lancashire, along with the rest of northern England, was battered by Storm Christoph, which resulted in extensive flooding. Another reminder of the continued pressures on fire and rescue services as they work through the pandemic, still dealing with other major incidents along the way.
Chief Fire Officer Justin Johnston summed it up in this tweet from January 18: ‘Just looking at our flooding potential and our vaccination support. Last year was awful but the first quarter of 2021 is going to be the toughest yet. Community spirit and a joined-up effort will get us through’.
In Hertfordshire, fire and rescue staff who are part of this county council service have been involved in setting up vaccination centres. Robertson House in Stevenage is the first one in the eastern region.
Darren McLatchey is Head of Resilience at Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service and leads on the vaccination operations. He said: “Fire and rescue staff played a key logistical role. We identified a number of potential sites for health colleagues to choose from, worked with contractors, and set up the site, turning Robertson House from a conference centre into a fully operational vaccination centre.”
By focusing on the logistics side of the vaccination operation, Hertfordshire Community Trust can focus on its clinical priority to vaccinate the public.
There is a new use for New Dimension assets now: a mass decontamination tent was set up as part of a vaccination centre in West Sussex. Chief Fire Officer Sabrina Cohen-Hatton was full of praise for this innovation. She explained: “Last week our crews from Crawley Fire Station, together with our technical rescue unit, helped extend a mobile testing unit for staff. We were only too happy to help South East Coast Ambulance in extending this piece of equipment to provide greater capacity which will help support staff in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Using fire and rescue services premises is emerging as a common theme. In Cambridgeshire, Chief Fire Officer Chris Strickland said that they were already using their own premises to support NHS Blood and Transplant activity. He is keen for his staff to assist the NHS with the vaccination programme. He said: “This is a time of national crisis and we are there to help in the fight against Covid-19. We’ve already faced significant challenges over the last year, but we have continued to support our communities while also keeping our staff safe.”
Basingstoke Fire Station is another example of fire estate being used to support the vaccination programme. Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service is still able to provide operational response from the fire station with vaccinations taking place in just one part of the building.
Elsewhere in Hampshire, Medical Response and Health Lead, Alex Rhodes tweeted: ‘@SolentNHSTrust vaccinating firefighter volunteers ready for deployment to @SCAS999 duties. @Hants_fire doing everything we can to safeguard those who step forward as soon as we can’. He even shared a photo of him being vaccinated for all the world to see.
And finally, Chief Fire Officer John Buckley confirmed that 20 of his staff in Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service will be deployed to support the vaccination roll-out to communities in Nottinghamshire from the last week in January.
The work being done by these services to contribute to the vaccination roll-out is important and demonstrates what is possible at a local level even when nationally there are disagreements about what is the right way forward.
While the number of fire and rescue staff actually doing the vaccinating is very low, there is clearly great potential to support the roll-out in other ways. It is an opportunity to utilise the strong working relationships that exist at a local level where the Fire and Rescue Service continues to be a critical partner in the fight against the pandemic. Over the coming months, the number and variety of vaccine-related examples is likely to grow and grow.
By the time this is article is available, HMICFRS will have published its Covid-19 inspection report. No doubt that too will focus on the arrangements at national level but also highlight the incredible work going on in fire and rescue services across the country to deal with the pandemic and help everyone get back to normal.