Firefighters are ‘best in class’ when it comes to EMR – and their rewards, conditions and training must be too, reports Lynne Wallis
Emergency medical responding (EMR) is one of the most contentious issues facing UK firefighters and it is a pivotal one for the union and the service.
It was vigorously debated at a special one-day FBU recall conference in March, when the executive council’s motion to continue EMR trials beyond their scheduled end in February was agreed.
But the conference was clear that trials cannot go on for ever and that its decision did not mean that trials will automatically continue until November. Instead, clear demands were put to the fire service employers. These centred on major concerns around health and safety and on pay.
Concerns about how EMR is being carried out currently – without firefighters’ pay reflecting the additional work and responsibility – are significant and justified.
Delegates heard that some managers running the trials had not attended a single EMR call and so had no idea of the type of work involved.
Health and safety and mental wellbeing are major factors in the resistance to EMR as it is being practised in some areas. Some services are doing it well, others badly.
Gary Keary, FBU brigade secretary for Greater Manchester, told the conference of an EMR call where firefighters arrived at the scene of a murder to find not only the victim but also the alleged murderer, who was still armed.
Delegates reported that the stress of EMR was taking its toll on the mental health of members. Tales abounded of ambulances diverted to other apparently more urgent cases once the ambulance service knew firefighters had turned out, and of firefighters being left to deal with catastrophic bleeds that they were not trained or equipped to deal with.
There have also been cases of firefighters being left to break bad news to relatives following the death of a loved one at the scene, a specialism they may not be trained in.
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said that we are facing the hardest set of circumstances since World War Two, with the downward trend in fires and fire deaths being used to justify cuts against a background of an onslaught on the entire public sector.
He explained that the union’s conference in May 2016 had agreed the discussion with the employers on broadening the work of the service. While EMR was only one part of this, it was a highly significant one. Other areas of discussion had included environmental challenges (floods), terrorism, youth and social engagement and inspection and enforcement.
IF LOCAL EMPLOYERS REFUSE TO ADDRESS OUR CONCERNS, THE TRIAL IN THAT AREA WILL CEASE
Wrack said: “Our conference’s strategy on broadening our role, including the discussions around EMR, is the best hope we have of turning things around.
“In relation to the EMR trials we can’t ignore the independent research carried out by Hertfordshire University which highlights a number of concerns.
“The management of many services want to take part in trials without adequate safeguards being in place. This work has put firefighters at a serious risk of stress and assault. The report calls for best practice and national standards. We are also saying to conference that, if employers refuse to address concerns about health and safety, it is within our power to withdraw from this work until they are addressed.”
EMR provided a case for improved pay, said Wrack. But some delegates believed the union should immediately withdraw from trials until an acceptable offer on pay was made by the employers.
London regional secretary Paul Embery believed that the union was in danger of over committing firefighters and that EMR seemed to be a one-way affair in employers’ favour.
Cameron Matthews, brigade secretary for Cambridgeshire, told delegates of how a Tory MP had advised firefighters to do the work and then submit a pay claim. Matthews continued: “If you ask a social worker to do a doctor’s work, no-one would say: ‘It’s OK. It’s a brand of the same work.’ Why should it be any different for firefighters doing EMR?”
Other delegates spoke of how they had no access to hepatitis B inoculations, while members in other regions were getting these important jabs automatically.
Lee Belsten, brigade secretary for Surrey, who supported the EC resolution, told delegates how EMR calls had justified a wholetime station staying open, as 60% of call outs were EMR cardiac arrest cases.
“EMR could save fire stations, jobs and appliances, but most importantly, it can save lives,” he argued.
The motion to continue the EMR trials while the union negotiates with employers on the safety issues as well as on pay was carried, with 22,811 in favour, 12,937 against.
Data collection to evaluate the effectiveness of EMR has been problematic. But it is known that firefighters have attended more than 30,000 co-responding incidents during the trial period, including 4,000 cardiac arrests.
Firefighters were first on the scene in two-thirds of all cases and were deemed in terms of capability to be “best in class”, and to have worked to a “very high standard” compared to other international EMR operations.
This comes as no surprise to the FBU. We know that our members are professionals with very high standards. What the employers and the government now need to do is to pay firefighters properly for this additional, lifesaving, work and to ensure that they are adequately trained, equipped and safe.
The FBU has commissioned research on the value of the work of firefighters. This is expected soon and will provide the background to discussions with the employers. The next few weeks will be crucial to these discussions.