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 fewer 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.”

Joe Karp-Sawey, FBU communications officer