On Friday, 31 January 2020, the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in the UK. Braced for the inevitable, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) had already started planning its response to this unknown but deadly virus.
Now in February 2021 and during the country’s third lockdown, NFCC continues to play a key part in fighting the pandemic, guiding and assisting the UK Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) as it gears up to support the roll-out of the country’s mass vaccination programme.
Just a few weeks after the government’s announcement, firefighters in many services were already assisting with the vaccination programme. The decision by the Department of Health and Social Care to give thousands of lateral flow tests to NFCC for dissemination across the UK FRS meant many more firefighters and support staff could play their part. The availability of these tests now makes greater involvement a reality, with firefighters further equipped to take on Covid-19 frontline roles, such as vaccinators or patient advocates across many vaccination centres.
Health surveillance and Infection Prevention and Control measures in place for firefighters have been robust throughout, as confirmed in January 2021’s independent data. Sickness figures across the board remain relatively low so the introduction of lateral flow testing has helped to ensure the health and safety of staff is monitored and that the testing mirrors that of the partner agency FRS is assisting. For the hundreds of firefighters that are supporting other partner agencies, such as the ambulance service, they will also be offered vaccinations in parity with those they are working alongside.
With almost 23,000 wholetime firefighters across England alone and an additional 12,498 on-call firefighters available as needed, these tests have bolstered the support offered to ambulance and NHS trusts, affirming the UK FRS’s key role in the mass testing and vaccination programmes.
Indeed, it is historically in the DNA of FRSs to step up and serve communities without hesitation with staff taking on more to ensure the public receives a world-class service.
Chief Fire Officers too have welcomed the opportunity for firefighters to use their extensive first-aid and trauma-care qualifications. Health and safety of staff has been paramount to every Chief Fire Officer with firefighters receiving the correct training, personal protective equipment suitable risk assessments, the same health surveillance/testing arrangements afforded to others and the tried and tested – hands, face, space mantra.
Over the last 11 months, it’s been quite a journey for the UK FRS. As well as responding to emergencies and carrying out statutory duties such as risk-based prevention and protection work, they took on additional duties in response to the pandemic.
With the 14 national additional activities previously agreed with the Employers and Fire Brigades Union, fire services could assist vulnerable people, the health service, ambulance trusts, social care and a range of other organisations on the front line, ensuring those who needed help got it. The introduction of mass testing, support with track and trace, and now the vaccinations has added an additional layer of protection and reassurance to staff and the public.
From delivering over 5.3 million items of PPE and other medical supplies to NHS and care facilities, assembling 68,135 single-use face masks, almost 100,000 emergency ambulance transports, transporting 1,456 Covid patients and 3,337 non-Covid patients to hospital, to providing training on preventing infections in care homes staff, the UK Fire and Rescue Service has met all challenges head on.
To complement the Covid activities, NFCC launched its public awareness campaign ‘Ready Willing Able’ in April 2020 which explained and reassured communities that their local fire service was doing everything it could to help, while highlighting NFCC’s work to support them during Covid-19.
Throughout the pandemic and alongside the campaign, NFCC worked with its networks across all FRSs to get safety messages out across the entire UK quickly and efficiently. These included additional home-safety messages, barbeque safety in relation to wildfires, advice around not having barbeques on balconies and protection advice for businesses who were working in different ways.
Embracing the new digital era that the pandemic brought, online NFCC meetings were held daily, whether as part of NFCC’s dedicated Covid Gold group (with CFO Phil Garrigan as Fire Gold), the government or NFCC projects and programmes, to ensure our work continued for the benefit of the sector. An all-Chief Fire Officers call was also held every Friday and this continues.
NFCC will continue to use this digital approach where necessary, having recognised from the outset the need for new ways of working and a carefully managed transition to the ‘new normal’, whenever that might be. To support this, NFCC established a ‘Covid-19 Committee’ to aid recovery and collate key learning from dealing with the pandemic. This has been set up to run concurrently with the government’s Covid Act.
The committee is made up of a number of key strands, in two interrelated areas of work – Operational Oversight and Recovery. Work has incorporated learning to ensure NFCC is as well, if not better, prepared for another event of this kind.
As if the pandemic wasn’t challenging enough, 2020 also dealt the NFCC and UK Fire and Rescue Service a significant number of other challenges.
One of those was the ‘fake news’ widely reported that hand sanitiser left in cars could catch fire. By working with the NHS, NFCC was able to get this national statement retracted and debunk the myth.
Elsewhere, a company was encouraging people to set off sky lanterns to support the NHS. Sky lanterns can cause millions of pounds worth of damage while harming wildlife and livestock. Utilising our support networks to get this message out, NFCC effectively used social-media platforms and enlisted the support of BBC/ITV television presenter Julia Bradbury in a bid to deter people from taking part in this misguided campaign.
Alongside this, a number of other key areas of work were taking place which required NFCC’s continued input and support.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry (GTI) resumed and the Manchester Bombing Inquiry began, both of which put the role of the UK FRS under the spotlight.
With regard to GTI, an overriding priority is to make sure there is change in the way that buildings – including high-rise homes – are constructed, refurbished and managed.
High-rise residential buildings need to have safety features that protect both the residents and firefighters from a fire. If those features are not present, or fail, the public and the firefighters who serve them will find themselves in a hugely challenging and very dangerous situation.
With a direct link to this, both the Fire Safety Bill and the draft Building Safety Bill were submitted to parliament in 2020. NFCC will continue to respond to these and highlight areas where more needs to be done. The NFCC has also welcomed the progression of the Building Safety Bill and hopes to see the ‘broken system’ that this country has faced for decades, finally fixed.
Last year also marked a milestone with the publication of the first State of Fire report that highlighted fire services’ unique strengths as well as outlining areas of improvement, the recommendations from which the NFCC continues to work on. The second State of Fire Report is due early in 2021.
As well as supporting the response to Covid, the country experienced a number of large-scale wildfires in 2020. The Wareham Forest fire covered more than 180 hectares, with a fire front that was more than 3km. At the height of the response, 25 fire appliances and approximately 150 firefighters were at the scene.
Bonfire Night too saw some of the UK’s firefighters targeted by members of the public, in shockingly mindless attacks. FRSs reported a rise in the volume and severity of attacks, with fireworks, stones and bricks thrown at crews. Official stats confirm that between 2015 and 2020 there were more than 3,800 attacks on firefighters. In 2019/20 alone, around 950 attacks were recorded in England and Scotland, not taking into account Bonfire Night 2020.
Incidents such as these put intense pressure on fire services. This – coupled with an increase in deliberate fires in the early days of lockdown – meant even more work during unprecedented times, while working around the clock to support and protect the most vulnerable.
Last year saw significant financial investment too, into protection and NFCC work, in addition to a £16million direct investment into FRSs. Six million pounds to support the Grenfell Inquiry recommendations, £4m directly to NFCC’s Protection Hub and a further £3m invested in the NFCC Central Programme Office. The Protection Hub investment supports the work of the Protection Board and the Building Risk Review and will develop guidance equivalent to National Operational Guidance for Protection. This has facilitated the start of the Prevention programme and we now have programmes to support all elements of an integrated risk management plan.
While the country’s population had high hopes for a return to some sort of normality in 2021, communities are now dealing with a new variant of Covid-19. Fire and Rescue Services continue to meet every challenge head on, to ensure they remain at the heart of their communities, standing shoulder to shoulder with emergency services and helping to protect our National Health Service.
Minister for Fire Lord Stephen Greenhalgh has spoken many times about the crucial role firefighters and FRS staff have played in supporting the fight against the pandemic. He said: ‘I have heard many incredible stories over the last few months of staff volunteers going the extra mile to help the most vulnerable in their local communities, which goes to show just how Fire and Rescue Services are ready, willing and able to put the needs of local people front and centre to everything they do.’
NFCC will continue its work to support all UK Fire and Rescue Services, using its expert knowledge, skills and collaboration with partners to ensure the government is aware of all the work which takes place. It will continue to work towards securing a fairer deal for fire in the future, while cementing and celebrating the knowledge that the UK has a world-class fire and rescue service, worthy of the recognition and support it deserves.
Resilience and resources to support improvement will be key. NFCC’s submission to government ahead of November’s Spending Review made it clear there needs to be enough resources available to provide an emergency response, even in times of exceptional demand, coupled with other demands the FRS face.
The UK FRS is full of extraordinary, selfless people. Fire and Rescue Service staff across the country have stood shoulder to shoulder with the NHS, Ambulance Service and Care Homes in the fight against Covid-19. Staff will not sit behind the red doors of their fire station, when their help is needed in the communities they so ably serve. They will not wait for the pandemic to pass them by and are always looking for and responding to every opportunity to ensure they are at the heart of the response, doing what they can to drive down the R rate and help to save lives.
If the last few months have taught NFCC anything, it’s that they too are ready, willing and able to tackle whatever lies ahead, throughout 2021 and beyond.