Fire and rescue service employers have unilaterally scrapped a ground-breaking agreement with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) which had enabled firefighters to assist the NHS and care sector response to COVID-19. Negotiations over health and safety measures for firefighters delivering high-risk COVID-19 duties were ongoing when the National Employers issued a communication ending the agreement on the evening of Wednesday 13 January.

The decision appears to be supported by the National Fire Chiefs Council. This was done without any prior notice to firefighters or the FBU. The FBU says the termination is driven by the employers’ desire to alter previously agreed safety arrangements which protected firefighters undertaking additional work.

alternative safety measures

Under the agreement, firefighters were required to submit a negative COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test before returning to their fire station on normal duties, protecting the service from mass outbreaks by removing the risk of cross contamination. However, in talks the National Employers attempted to remove this protection at a national level.

The union had offered a range of alternative safety measures to enable the activities to proceed safely

Working over the Christmas and New Year period, the union had offered a range of alternative safety measures to enable the activities to proceed safely, but these were rejected by employers. The employers then unilaterally withdrew from the agreement. As a result, there are now no national protections for firefighters delivering COVID-19 duties.

fire and rescue service

The FBU called this an “abdication of responsibility” by employers regarding the safety of firefighters and says the uneven health and safety practices across other sectors should not be repeated in the fire and rescue service. Firefighters, overwhelmingly represented by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), have taken on numerous additional COVID-related activities during the course of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 in order to assist in keeping communities safe.

This agreement was originally established through a tripartite mechanism involving the FBU, the fire service National Employers and the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC). More recently it was renewed via the National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire & Rescue Services (NJC). The FBU is urging fire and rescue service National Employers to get back around the table so that the national agreement can be reintroduced in full. The union will be speaking with its members before issuing further guidance.

national safety standards

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “This irresponsible move from fire and rescue service employers threatens to endanger the lives of firefighters, their families, and the public. The FBU has consistently worked with employers and fire chiefs in good faith to enable firefighters to safely take on new work to help their communities through this pandemic. But employers have decided to begin a race to the bottom on safety, abdicating their responsibility to keep their staff safe, and services protected from mass outbreaks.”

Firefighters carrying out COVID-19 duties have saved lives and we are proud to have helped them do it safely"

“Rather than support firefighters’ life-saving work, employers have walked away from the very agreement which enabled it. By removing national safety standards, they are exposing staff and services to a deadly disease - all apparently to make a political attack on a trade union simply because we are trying to ensure work is safe. Firefighters carrying out COVID-19 duties have undoubtedly saved lives and we are proud to have helped them do it safely."

national safety agreement

"We deeply regret that employers have scrapped this crucial agreement and urge them to reintroduce vital national safety protections and resume talks. They should stop playing politics and get round the table to resolve this.

Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, said: “Firefighters are making a huge contribution to fighting the pandemic - helping the vulnerable, driving ambulances and supporting NHS and care services. But safety comes first. The consequences of COVID-19 running rampant through a local fire station and communities are too grim to contemplate. None of us know when we might need to make a 999 call. By turning their back on the national safety agreement, employers and fire chiefs are turning their back on us all. They must get back to the negotiating table.”

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