Utterly disgracefully, fire and rescue service employers have unilaterally terminated an agreement with the FBU that allowed firefighters to safely assist our communities during the pandemic.
It’s not just a matter of keeping our normal service running, so we can deal with fires, floods and other hazards safely. The agreement they are trying to torpedo is what has enabled us to perform additional tasks more directly related to Covid-19.
Virtually since the start of the pandemic firefighters have volunteered to drive ambulances and assist paramedics, help with patient transfer, deliver packages to vulnerable people, train care home workers to use PPE, and move the bodies of the deceased. In 2021 the volume of such tasks we’ve performed has gone through the roof; in 2020 we drove about 80,000 ambulances, delivered 100,000 packages, moved 2,000 dead bodies and worked with a thousand cares homes.
Only the bravery and tirelessness of firefighters in going that much further to help our communities, facilitated by the reasonableness and flexibility of our union, has allowed an already over-stretched system to provide these extra services. As the FBU has consistently pointed out, the last decade has seen firefighter numbers cut by 20% (11,000) and central funding cut by around 30%.
The National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies has long put pandemics in its most severe risk category, yet rather than preparing seriously for such an eventuality the government and their agents running the fire and rescue service have fragmented the service and cut it to the bone.
Back in March the FBU made an agreement with the employers and the fire chiefs to govern how this kind of work could be done safely, and it’s been renewed and added to several times.
The body for collective bargaining in the fire service, the National Joint Council, is made up of employer representatives of various kinds, including from local authorities, and representatives of the workforce. The FBU is the only organisation which represents and negotiates for employees on the NJC, due to our high density. For the sake of facilitating a swift and smooth solution of this situation we temporarily accepted that the National Fire Chiefs Council could be represented in the discussions.
The agreement we concluded, involving all three parties, said that firefighters should only assent to legitimate requests for non-contractual work, that they must not be to the detriment of core statutory duties, and that they must be safe.
Particularly since the service is now so fragmented, with a virtual postcode lottery, we had to push to win national best practice for the safety standards we negotiated for the pandemic.
A key element was agreement that firefighters volunteering for additional Covid-related work in a health or care setting were to detach from ordinary duties and take a PCR test and get the all clear – or self-isolate – before returning to ordinary work. This measure worked not only to prevent transmission of the virus into fire stations from these settings, but also in the other direction. Protecting those we are helping, as well as the firefighters doing this vital work
Some chiefs said this was not sustainable. Others then began to repeat this message – nonsensically, since we know the system worked well in most areas. The union insisted that without agreed, suitable safety measures the work could not be done safely.
A review period was agreed, to explore possible alternatives to PCR tests after detachment. Over Christmas FBU officers worked almost non-stop to develop and expand the list of alternatives. The employers, working hand-in-glove with the chiefs, rejected every single one.
Last week the the union came back with even more options, preparing to continue negotiations. Then suddenly there was a press release and circular from the employers terminating the agreement and blaming the FBU, even though it was they who walked away. What they said was categorically untrue.
This is clearly a political attack on firefighters and their union. The employers and the chiefs are prioritising their anti-worker agenda above public safety. Sitting comfortably at home, they are seeking to throw our members and with us the wider public unnecessarily into harm’s way.
Firefighters are determined to continue doing the work needed to serve our communities, but we insist on doing it safely – not just for our own sake, but for the sake of our families, the vulnerable people we are helping and the wider community. We don’t want to help with one hand and pass on the virus with the other. We’ve proved already that it is possible to deliver this work safely, if the agreed safety measures are put in place.
FBU members are rightly angry and will be meeting locally and nationally this week to discuss our response. The union at every level is prepared to fight for firefighter and public safety.
Solidarity is essential. Everyone can start by promoting the FBU’s newly launched safety campaign on social media, sending messages, photos and videos of support, and lobbying councillors, fire authority members and mayors to help reverse this attack.