Fire services' COVID response praised by new national report

Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) have been praised for their response to COVID-19 in a national report published today – but there are also lessons to be learnt.

Services across the country have demonstrated how they are ready, willing and able to step up and support the pandemic – with communities at the heart of their work.

The Home Secretary-commissioned report was compiled by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), looking at the response to COVID-19.

HMICFRS states: “Overall, Fire and Rescue Services responded very well to the outbreak. Services maintained - and continue to maintain - their ability to respond to fires and other emergencies in these extraordinary times.”

The role of on-call firefighters was also highlighted by HMICFRS, including supporting ambulance trusts, delivering to vulnerable people and covering staff absences.

Equally non-frontline staff stepped up, carrying out work which was way outside their roles: Delivering prescriptions, visiting the isolated and packing and distributing food to those required to shield.

But it was not all positive, with the inspectorate being particularly critical of an agreement reached by the employers, the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Brigades Union, which they felt limited the FRS ability to do more.

Echoing the report’s findings, Roy Wilsher, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, said: “The FRS has shown once again that it is prepared to take on challenges alongside blue light services and other partner agencies. We have seen staff go above and beyond, taking on many more roles in the fight against the pandemic, often in very challenging circumstances. I could not be prouder of what many firefighters and FRS staff have done - and will continue to do every day until the pandemic is over.

“However, staff were met with challenges which impacted on the work they could undertake, due to the national tripartite agreement becoming too prescriptive. It did enable activities to start but ultimately impacted on the extent and speed at which activities could be implemented.

“The inspiring range of activities comes as no surprise. From driving ambulances, ambulance driving instruction, delivering essential items to vulnerable people, delivering PPE, face-fitting PPE masks for frontline NHS workers, through to the harrowing task of the movement of bodies of those who sadly died from the virus. It has been truly humbling.

“The safety of staff and the public continues to be at the heart of all COVID-related work. Chief Fire Officers have ensured that nothing was undertaken without the right safety measures in place. All staff are afforded the same safeguards as those they are working alongside, including testing and - more recently - vaccination. This has been incorporated within the model risk assessments provided to every FRS.

“Activity has by no means slowed down; each day brings new challenges. With the work of FRS increasingly focused on supporting the vaccination programme, ranging from hosting and setting up new vaccination hubs, to supporting those receiving the vaccine, and in some areas, FRS staff trained to - and now - delivering the vaccine itself.”

The report highlights NFCC’s role, citing its leadership, clear lines of communications with the government and its ‘wealth of guidance’. This enabled FRS to work consistently and collectively, thereby reducing operational variation.

Responding to this, Mr Wilsher said: “Services should be praised for their outstanding work.  Yet we recognise the Inspectorate’s findings and the fact that the tripartite process became too slow to react to local requests for assistance.”

This agreement was intended to be a framework to support the response to the pandemic, but it became ‘too prescriptive and cumbersome’.  Resulting in additional responsibilities having to be negotiated at a national level, often taking weeks.

Mr Wilsher went on to say: “While the agreement got off to a good start, the Fire Brigades Union soon insisted that everything had to be negotiated at a national level. 

“The NFCC and employers worked with this approach to keep the agreement going, but ultimately it took too long to negotiate basic activities; slowing down the pandemic response for many FRSs. I believe this was as frustrating to local union officials as it was to Chief Officers and their staff.

“This led to many previously nationally agreed activities proving difficult to implement at a local level. By becoming too prescriptive, the agreement did not always support Chief Fire Officers to do what they do best - run their fire and rescue services and respond to the pandemic - with a clear focus on the safety of their staff and the public.

“It is a great disappointment that the FBU still haven’t supported the fire service’s effort to support the vaccination drive, whereas other unions within the service clearly have.”

In closing, Mr Wilsher said: “It would be wrong to focus solely on the negatives; we should acknowledge them and move on. I am pleased that senior leaders, firefighters and staff have been praised for their outstanding work.  They have done amazing things during this period and they should be proud of the contribution they have made.

HMICRS’s findings include:

  • Every service maintained its ability to respond to fires and other emergencies
  • Tripartite agreement varied from service to service
  • Well-being provision offered to staff was generally good
  • The pandemic was a catalyst for change and transformation

NFCC will work closely with all FRS - and those responsible for leadership and governance - to ensure the report’s findings are carefully considered and inform continued work through the pandemic response, and beyond. NFCC and employers have been working on a strategy for improvement, Fit for the Future, and this report will influence this work.



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