The coronavirus death toll in the UK has surpassed 50,000, bringing tragedy to thousands of families. The disproportionate impact on the elderly and vulnerable left 2.2 million shielding for months, while millions more were furloughed, laid off or instructed to stay at home.
Throughout, firefighters have stepped up to help their communities. And the FBU has worked to ensure that the response is appropriate, proportionate, and safe – both for its members and the public.
“Firefighters and control staff have always stepped up when the public has been in danger and this crisis is no different,” said Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary. “The strain on all emergency services will continue, but we can and will get through it together.”
After lengthy negotiations between the FBU, the National Fire Chiefs Council and the National Employers, a framework for firefighters’ coronavirus response was developed, taking the form of a national agreement at the end of March. This outlined what temporary activities firefighters were able to be involved in.
As we go to press, the agreement has been extended until mid-July, with an option to run until the end of August.
The first wave of activities saw firefighters delivering vital food and medical supplies to those shielding in their homes. Firefighters could also be deployed to ambulance services and, in the case of mass casualties, assist in the movement of bodies.
As the pandemic progressed, firefighters entered new areas. A total of 14 new activities had been agreed by June, including assembling PPE, assisting with coronavirus testing and transferring patients to and from emergency Nightingale hospitals.
Firefighters who voluntarily signed up for ambulance assistance were paired with paramedics and their impact has been remarkable.
“The number of members who signed up for the work was really uplifting,” said Jon Wharnsby, a firefighter who has been working with ambulance staff. “It was inspiring to see how many just wanted to find a way to help.”
The London Ambulance Service, which was up against it even before the pandemic due to austerity, has been transformed by the assistance.
“It has created a capacity where ambulances are waiting for patients rather than patients waiting for ambulances. The paramedics that I’ve spoken to say that it has undoubtedly saved lives.”
While Jon and his colleagues have described the experience as “tiring”, “stressful” and “emotional”, there have also been moments of great joy.
After assisting with the delivery of a baby and cutting the umbilical cord, Jon (half-jokingly) suggested that the mother name the new-born girl after his partner. She later contacted the service to say that she had done just that, but had got the name wrong.
When Dave Pitt, an FBU health and safety rep in the West Midlands, first began moving the coronavirus deceased, the number of bodies encountered each shift were quite low. But over the space of two weeks, the numbers accelerated.
The FBU had recently been in dispute in the West Midlands, but the pandemic has seen an improvement in industrial relations and health and safety engagement. “We’re hoping that they continue to consult with us on the same level as they have during COVID,” Dave said.
Dave’s team underwent pre-operation psychological readiness training covering emotional resilience, welfare, compassion fatigue and burnout, and 24/7 support was available from his brigade.
But not all brigades have had the same level of support and the Tripartite Group has raised concerns about the variation in risk assessments. National risk assessments are now in development, which services must implement by mid-July if coronavirus response work is to continue.
The pandemic continues to sweep through much of the country. For a period, COVID-19 patients were being discharged to care homes, prompting criticism of the government for failing to protect the sector. The number of care home deaths known to be from coronavirus so far stands at 15,000.
Against this backdrop, senior health and social care officials called in firefighters to help stem the spread of infections in care homes. Firefighters will train care home staff directly on infection prevention and control procedures and how to safely carry out COVID-19 tests.
“While firefighters are here to help care staff and residents through this crisis, we must be clear that it should never have come to this,” said Matt Wrack, incensed that thousands had paid for the government’s “mishandling” of the pandemic with their lives.
Now, the government is taking steps towards unlocking the country. Some critics say they may be doing so too early.
Should the virus resurge, firefighters will be ready.