The union representing firefighters hampered efforts to deploy the emergency service into potentially life-saving scenarios during the coronavirus pandemic with outdated and unnecessary practices, independent inspectors have said in a damning report.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) asked firefighters not to volunteer to support the NHS test-and-trace system and the Covid-19 vaccination programme, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said.
The action stemmed from an agreement put in place by the union, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) and the national employers designed to determine the additional activities firefighters would carry out in support of the fire and rescue services’ response to the pandemic.
Inspectors said the agreement became “more of a hindrance than a help” and prevented or delayed some chief fire officers from deploying the right people with the right skills to better support communities.
The FBU insisted on “tortuous” negotiations for every single additional duty requested of firefighters, which led to significant delays and in some cases refusal to help, the inspectorate said.
Asked whether lives were lost or put in danger as a result of the lengthy negotiations, Zoë Billingham, inspector of fire and rescue services, said: “As a direct result of the position the trade union adopted, the ability of the fire service to deploy firefighters into potentially life-saving activities was limited and delayed.”
The FBU general secretary, Matt Wrack, branded the report a “political and biased attack on firefighters”.
“It is neither evidence-based nor an independent report and is instead full of untruths and omissions, and we totally reject it,” he said.
He added: “Our priorities throughout this pandemic have been to ensure firefighters can safely support their communities, the NHS, and the care sector. That means protecting their health but also the services they work in which continue to respond to emergencies. A service with 11,000 fewer firefighters than a decade ago cannot afford for this virus to run rampant through fire stations.
“The FBU wants firefighters to continue supporting the pandemic response but sadly it seems the inspectorate, doing the bidding of the government and fire chiefs, is more intent on attacking our trade union and helping to undermine the terms and conditions of firefighters.”
The inspectorate said the FBU was currently telling members not to volunteer with the vaccine rollout, framed by ministers and healthcare professionals as a race against time to tackle the spread of the new, more transmissible variant of Covid-19.
Billingham said: “This is deeply regrettable. It’s not what the public expect of the fire service they generally hold in such high admiration, and we doubt it’s what firefighters want either; they’re dedicated, public-spirited professionals who told us they want to help.”
Inspectors revealed the fire service in Greater Manchester was asked to help with the test-and-trace system at a local level – knocking on people’s doors to tell them they had been in contact with an infected person – but union negotiations took 12 weeks to conclude, throughout which time the fire service could not assist.
The union told firefighters not to deliver food parcels to people who were shielding because it did not fall within the agreement negotiated on delivering essential items, the inspectorate said.
Billingham said it was not appropriate for the FBU to have been given the ability to delay or veto the “reasonable and safe deployment” of firefighters to assist the public during a national emergency.