3,000 fire and rescue personnel in coronavirus isolation as services pay the price for testing fiasco

Fire and rescue personnel urgently need coronavirus testing, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has warned, as services lose up to 12% of their firefighters and control staff to self-isolation.

Nearly 3,000 fire and rescue staff are in self-isolation and unable to work, representing 5.1% of the UK’s overall fire and rescue workforce. Just under 2,600 of them are operational firefighters and control staff, making up 5.3% of the total.

Emergency fire control rooms, which have less staff, have been worst hit in some areas, with some control rooms losing 15.9% of their staff.

The FBU has said that, without urgent testing of frontline personnel, there will inevitably be an impact on brigades’ ability to provide fire cover and respond to other emergencies, including their work supporting the coronavirus response. Fire and rescue services in the UK are operating with 11,500 fewer firefighters than in 2010.

The FBU’s research reveals:

  • In London Fire Brigade (LFB), 472 firefighters and control staff are in isolation, nearly 10% of the total. Overall, 478 LFB staff (8.5%) are in isolation, an increase of nearly 200 since 20 March.
  • West Midland Fire and Rescue, covering Birmingham, has 110 firefighters and control staff in isolation, totalling 7.5%.
  • West Yorkshire’s control room has 15.9% of its staff in isolation, while in Mid and West Wales it’s more than 13%.
  • Bedfordshire has the highest proportion in isolation, with 55 firefighters and control room staff, 12% of their total.

The Scottish government has committed to initial limited testing of firefighters and control staff which has already begun at Glasgow airport, as the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service loses 362 staff to isolation, just under 5% of its workforce.

Testing has been made available to 50 personnel from Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service who have symptoms. 147 staff (7.5%) are currently in isolation. In Wales, where 178 staff are in isolation, the devolved government has committed to testing other emergency service personnel once tests have been secured for NHS staff.

But in a letter to the FBU, Security Minister James Brokenshire made no commitment to testing fire and rescue personnel in isolation in England, of which 2,300 are in isolation.

Emergency fire control staff handle 999 calls and provide vital fire survival guidance for areas of up to 5 million people from a single room. Should one member of staff contract the virus, the emergency call infrastructure for an entire region could be at risk.

Some firefighters are now driving ambulances and assisting ambulance staff; delivering food and medicines to vulnerable people; and working with the police to move dead bodies, after the FBU reached a landmark agreement with fire chiefs and fire and rescue employers.

Firefighters will now also be able to fit masks and respirators for NHS staff and deliver Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and medical supplies to NHS trusts, after a further agreement was reached on Thursday 9 April.

While the FBU has called for firefighters to cease all non-essential, non-emergency interactions with the public, they will continue to come into contact in emergency situations and as part of their coronavirus response work, placing them at greater risk of infection.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said:

"The Westminster government is playing with fire by not testing firefighters and control room staff for coronavirus. Currently, crews are maintaining services, but this will become increasingly difficult as the virus spreads.

“There are already thousands of firefighters and control staff in self-isolation, only a fraction of which will have the disease. If we aren’t able to find out exactly who is infected, and more staff isolate unnecessarily, services will be put on a dangerous knife-edge.

"Of course testing of NHS staff has to be a priority, but firefighters and other emergency service personnel are also at serious risk. The very safety of the public relies on them being able to attend work. There needs to be a clear and deliverable testing strategy for all workers required to continue at work.

“The government failed to secure test kits in sufficient numbers early in the pandemic and now frontline services are paying the price. Devolved governments have begun to take steps in the right direction, but in Westminster time is standing still – ministers need to get to grips with this crisis and ensure that all emergency service personnel are tested as soon as possible.”

Fire and rescue service

Personnell in isolation

% of total staff in isolation

% Grey Book (firefighter + control) in isolation

Total staff in post

Total Grey book staff (firefighter + control)

Total

Grey book (firefighter +control

Scotland

362

329

4.6

4.8

7,906

6,797

Northern Ireland

147

114

7.5

6.5

1954

1,761

Cleveland

52

38

9.0

8.2

581

461

Durham

28

20

4.9

4.0

576

496

Northumberland

9

6

2.6

2.0

344

305

Tyne and Wear

62

33

7.4

5.2

834

634

Humberside

31

29

2.8

3.4

1099

865

North Yorkshire

29

28

3.8

4.2

767

674

South Yorkshire

52

37

5.8

5.4

896

681

West Yorkshire

94

84

4.9

5.7

1918

1,468

Cheshire

41

41

4.8

6.1

847

672

Cumbria

31

31

4.8

5.3

641

582

Greater Manchester

107

87

6.0

6.4

1789

1,368

Lancashire

55

28

4.2

2.6

1304

1,073

Merseyside

72

48

6.0

5.7

1194

836

London

478

472

8.5

9.9

5622

4,788

Derbyshire

28

26

3.2

3.7

868

701

Leicestershire

12

11

1.7

1.9

700

577

Lincolnshire

10

8

1.5

1.3

681

624

Northamptonshire

21

17

4.0

3.7

525

459

Nottinghamshire

61

48

6.8

6.5

898

741

Hereford & Worcester

31

28

4.3

4.6

719

609

Shropshire

24

24

4.0

4.5

605

531

Staffordshire

34

10

3.7

1.4

912

690

Warwickshire

32

26

6.6

6.3

482

415

West Midlands

137

110

7.1

7.5

1918

1,468

Mid and West Wales

63

51

4.6

4.3

1,373

1,175

North Wales

36

15

4.0

2.0

894

737

South Wales

79

71

4.5

4.9

1,743

1,440

Bedfordshire

55

55

9.1

12.2

602

450

Cambridgeshire

35

31

5.8

6.8

608

459

Essex

105

82

7.3

7.1

1444

1,163

Hertfordshire

61

49

7.0

6.9

874

711

Norfolk

39

30

4.6

4.0

841

753

Suffolk

25

25

3.6

4.2

687

591

Berkshire

36

34

5.6

6.9

644

491

Buckinghamshire

22

17

4.7

4.8

467

352

East Sussex

26

22

3.3

3.5

799

635

Hampshire

59

49

3.5

3.5

1674

1,393

Isle of Wight

5

5

2.7

2.9

188

172

Kent

58

52

4.0

4.4

1460

1,179

Oxfordshire

17

16

2.6

2.8

657

575

Surrey

45

45

6.0

7.3

756

618

West Sussex

24

24

3.4

4.0

697

602

Avon

43

43

5.0

5.9

867

731

Cornwall

25

25

3.3

4.1

768

610

Dorset and Wiltshire

42

36

3.2

3.5

1327

1,039

Devon and Somerset

95

72

4.8

4.2

1997

1,708

Gloucestershire

9

9

1.9

2.1

479

435

 

Total staff in isolation

Total grey book (Operational+control) in isolation

% of total staff in isolation

% of grey book staff (firefighter and control) in isolation

Total staff in post

Total Grey Book Staff

TOTAL

2997

2591

5.1

5.4

58,426

48,295

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