The national body representing firefighters in the UK has called for more tests to be carried out on their members as Fire & Rescue Services around the country lose up to 12% of their frontline staff to self-isolation.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has said that around 3,000 staff are now self-isolating at home because they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
This number, a figure that represents 5.1% of the UK’s overall fire & rescue workforce, includes both firefighters and control room staff. Of the 3,000 members of staff who are currently isolating, just under 2,600 of them are operational firefighters and control room staff.
However, emergency fire control rooms have been worse hit with some control rooms losing just under 16% 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 almost 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 room staff which has already begun at Glasgow airport, as the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service loses 362 staff to isolation.
This figure represents 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.
Some firefighters are helping emergency ambulance NHS trusts and are driving ambulances and assisting ambulance staff; delivering food and medicines to vulnerable people; and working with the police to move dead bodies.
This agreement came 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 emergencies and as part of their coronavirus response work, placing them at higher 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.”