The escalating COVID-19 crisis is causing a great deal of uncertainty for people across the UK, including our members who are on the frontline during this pandemic.
We know that our members want to do their bit, but also have concerns about the potential impact on their health, their families’ health, and their working hours and conditions.
Here we’ve provided advice and answers to your questions on coronavirus, fire and rescue services’ response to COVID-19, protection for frontline personnel, and more.
The page will be regularly updated with new information and advice to guide you through the crisis.
Your questions answered
Firefighters are now permitted to:
- Assist ambulance services in some specified activities and drive ambulances;
- Deliver food and medicines to vulnerable people;
- In the case of mass casualties due to COVID-19, move dead bodies;
- Assist in face fitting masks to be used by frontline NHS staff and clinical care staff working with COVID-19 patients;
- Deliver PPE and other medical supplies to NHS and care facilities;
- Assist in taking samples for Covid-19 antigen testing;
- Drive ambulance transport not on blue-lights (excluding known Covid-19 patients) to outpatient appointments or to receive urgent care;
- Provide instruction for non-Service personnel to drive ambulances (not on blue-lights);
- Assemble single-use face shields for NHS and care staff;
- Packaging and repackaging food supplies for vulnerable people
- Transfer known or suspected COVID-19 patients to and from Nightingale hospitals;
- Transfer non-COVID-19 patients to and from Nightingale hospitals.
The new areas of work above are covered in the national tripartite agreement made between the Fire Brigades Union, NJC Fire Service employers and the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC).
The measures are temporary to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and will be in place until 15 July. The Tripartite Group have raised concerns about risk assessments varying between brigades. National risk assessments will now be produced for all fourteen agreed activities, to be implemented locally by fire and rescue services. If successful, the agreement will be extended until 26 August. These temporary measures are not permanent changes to employment terms and conditions.
Before firefighters undertake any additional duties, any issues identified in a risk assessment (which must be provided and agreed) must have control measures in place. Services must also first provide any additional training and the PPE necessary for the task undertaken.
The FBU is engaging with employers and political bodies to make sure that firefighters and control staff receive all necessary support during this period and that the work they are being asked to do is appropriate, proportionate and, above all, safe.
Any proposal for firefighters to undertake any additional work outside of the agreement must be agreed between the FBU, NFCC and National Employers.
Officials should report any proposal from their Fire and Rescue Service through the union structures.
We have repeatedly called on the government to secure testing for fire and rescue personnel, and are exploring all avenues with the NFCC and the National Employers. National Officer Riccardo La Torre is leading on the issues.
The FBU believes there should be a system of testing for all key workers, beginning with NHS and care staff, but then extending out to all emergency service personnel, including the fire and rescue service.
With around 3,000 fire service staff currently in self-isolation, many of whom will not have the virus, services could struggle to maintain staffing levels as the pandemic progresses.
Retained Duty System (RDS) firefighters whose primary employment is under threat should raise their concerns with the trade union rep in their primary workplace to see what support is in place. You may be entitled to government support or government-funded furlough.
We have filed a claim with the National Employers to maintain fair pay for RDS members who have seen their fire and rescue incomes fall during the coronavirus lockdown, which you can read here.
Services are also taking on new areas of work to aid with the coronavirus response. We have encouraged employers to consider retained firefighters for these roles.
Fire and rescue staff are key workers and will, in most cases, be expected to continue going to work – so long as they do not live with anyone who has symptoms, or are displaying symptoms themselves.
Firefighters and control staff should follow all other government and NHS health advice closely.
Public Health England has published guidance for first responders and others in close contact with symptomatic people with potential COVID-19, available here. You can read the FBU circular here.
Public Health England has also published guidance on when to use surgical face mask or FFP3 respirator, available here. You can read the FBU circular here.
The guidance underlines the importance of having respiratory protection when conducting aerosol generating procedures. In the fire service an example of this would be incident-ground oxygen therapy equipment.
These procedures can, or rather, are likely to produce airborne droplets which will carry the virus. For these reasons eye protection should also be worn when aerosol generating procedures are used on a casualty by firefighters.
The most logical step for firefighters, who have access to it as a matter of course, is for breathing apparatus to be worn as this provides complete protection to our eyes, airways, and face.
Fire and rescue services should have in place external laundry services, and appropriate arrangements for the cleaning of stations as well as disposal facilities and processes for the safe disposal of clinical waste.
Arrangements made by fire and rescue services should conform to the highest possible standards and these standards should be as close as possible to those required and practised by health providers who come into contact with Covid-19 carriers and sufferers.
Services should follow the Public Health England COVID-19 guidance on cleaning in non-healthcare settings as closely as possible. You can read the FBU circular here.
Services should also read across from Public Health England guidance for ambulance trusts, as far as possible. You can read the FBU circular here.
Breathing apparatus (BA) tests are essential to protect firefighters, particularly in the context of the pandemic, as they may be used as PPE in some cases.
Normal health and safety structures should still be in place. BA cleaning routines should not be altered without consultation with the FBU. There is no reason for fire service management to alter these arrangements.
We are raising the issue of cleaning fluid shortages nationally. It is the FBU’s belief that, if non-essential industry supply chains can be used to produce ventilators and PPE during the crisis, they can also be used to produce essential cleaning fluids for frontline emergency services.
Please raise any issues with a local FBU official.
If a service wants emergency fire control staff to handle ambulance calls, they should raise their request through the appropriate structures as per the tripartite agreement between the FBU, the NFCC and the National Employers.
All new areas of work must be raised through the appropriate organisation for national negotiation and approval before it can be negotiated and implemented locally.
Currently, handling ambulance calls is not covered in the tripartite agreement and emergency fire control staff should not be undertaking this work.
The UK and devolved governments confirmed that firefighters, control, and support staff, as key workers, will be able to continue sending their children to school.
We are aware of a small number of cases of firefighters having their children turned away due to a shortage of places and staff at their local school. In England, the government advise you contact your local authority, who will seek to redirect you to a local school in your area that your child, or children, can attend.
If you are unsure if you fall within the critical key worker category, you should confirm with your employer that your role is necessary for the continuation of an essential public service.
Pregnant women were placed in a vulnerable group by the Chief Medical Officer on 16 March. This means they have been advised to follow strict social distancing measures, and where possible, to self-isolate for 12 weeks (from the date of 16 March). All pregnant women who can work from home should do so.
FBU brigade officials have been asked to raise this issue with service managers. They should reference the Public Health England (PHE) guidance for protecting vulnerable adults.
We believe that this advice must also apply to members whose wife/partner is pregnant. We are urgently seeking confirmation that this is the case.
We are putting in place systems to make sure that all of our members still get the service from the union that they need, no matter the circumstances.
If you need support or representation during the period make sure that you continue to contact your local officials – we still have your back.
We are also calling on members to undertake new and specific organising measures related to the crisis, such as the electing watch reps to have FBU representation at every level – you can read more here.
We may have to put in place special measures, such as replacing face to face meetings with phone calls, but you will still receive the support you need.
We have put in place measures to protect the health and safety of our staff during the pandemic. As many staff members as possible will be working from home and there will be protective measures in place in FBU head office and regional offices.
We are making sure that FBU members still receive the service from their union that they need and deserve, taking substantial measures to ensure that membership services continue to run smoothly during this period.
The FBU has set up Microsoft Teams for officials to participate in video conferencing for union business. Officials may wish to use other services, such as Zoom or WhatsApp video calling, for their branch and brigade meetings.
The FBU has published this handy guide (link needed) for how best to participate in video conferencing.
The FBU has also launched a Zoom account which it will be using to regularly broadcast to members – these live broadcasts will cover important updates and give members the chance to ask questions.
Services are advised to detach personnel from fire service duties if the employee is forming part of an ambulance crew; working with dead bodies; working in hospitals; or working in care homes.
Where possible, services should detach employees from fire and rescue duties for the duration of their coronavirus assistance.
If you are no longer carrying out coronavirus response work, you must not return to work until you have tested negative for COVID-19.
This test must take place no sooner than 3 days after ceasing coronavirus assistance work. If you receive a positive test result you should inform the appropriate manager immediately.
Every activity agreed by the Tripartite Group must undergo a local risk assessment before work can begin. However, there has been some variation in the format, content and findings of the risk assessments between services.
The hazards do not vary across fire and rescue areas. To address this concern, the Tripartite Group is now conducting national risk assessments to be implemented locally by 15 July. If successful, the agreement will be extended until 26 August.
No. There is no official exemption for fire and rescue employees from test, trace and isolate strategies anywhere in the UK.
All personnel should cooperate and comply with contact tracers when approached, taking heed of any notifications to self-isolate.
We are aware of recent communications from the NFCC advising services to ask staff to tell contact tracers that they are wearing PPE and, when it becomes available, to turn off contact tracing apps if PPE is being worn. However, the FBU advises members to be honest about exactly what PPE was being worn when speaking to contact tracers.
While cloth face coverings provide some limited protection, they are not PPE. We strongly advise against opting out of the NHS contact tracing app when it becomes available.