AN outbreak of coronavirus has left Surrey firefighters struggling to maintain fire cover after their brigade management failed to properly implement vital health and safety measures, says the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).
As many as seven fire engines have been unavailable at any one time from the outbreak – 30% of the brigade’s full-time fire engines.
A Surrey firefighter tested positive for Covid-19 on 25 July, after undergoing two days of training exercises without proper infection prevention and control measures, causing 20 more Surrey Fire and Rescue Service personnel to be removed from duty for self-isolation.
Safety-critical training exercises have been reintroduced in Surrey after a pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, but proper control measures have not been put in place, the FBU says.
The FBU supports re-introducing the training, but the union was not consulted over risk-assessments, allowing the brigade to ‘mark its own homework’.
Firefighters have reported that social distancing measures were not maintained during the training. Face-masks were not worn during classroom learning sessions, while water bottles and cooling measures were shared between firefighters.
Fire and Rescue Services are required to plan for major emergencies like pandemics, including the impact they can have on staffing.
But Surrey Fire and Rescue Service has cut 31% of its firefighters and control staff since 2010 and removed four fire engines in April, as Covid-19 deaths were rapidly increasing. A further three fire engines are due to be removed in October.
Surrey firefighters launched a six-month industrial action campaign against the cuts in December 2019 but paused the action due to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, they have been aiding the coronavirus response locally.
The FBU has warned that ‘a decade of cuts have put the service in an extremely vulnerable position, annihilating any resilience’ to an outbreak and that the removal of further fire cover is ‘reckless and dangerous’.
In May, the FBU wrote to all four governments in the UK calling for a moratorium on cuts to fire and rescue services, saying that planned cuts, such as those in Surrey, do not account for significant risks, such as pandemics.
Surrey’s Fire and Rescue Service does not mention pandemics in its risk-management document, despite flu pandemics being rated the highest category risk in the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies (NRR), which identifies the risks that services should prepare for.
Nationally, 60% of services do not mention ‘pandemic’ or ‘flu’ in their Integrated Risk Management Plans (IRMPs), which outline how they will manage risks to the safety of the public in their area, highlighting the greatest threats and addressing issues including resourcing, firefighter safety, and budgeting.
The FBU has called for firefighters and control staff to have access to routine weekly coronavirus testing, including those who are asymptomatic, to prevent outbreaks, but have so far been ignored by Ministers.
Joe Weir, FBU regional secretary, said: ‘Surrey firefighters have shown incredible dedication to their communities during this pandemic, but their brigade hasn’t shown the same dedication to keeping staff safe – and now it’s seriously impacting fire cover.
‘We support bringing back safety-critical training but only if proper infection control measures are in place. Sadly, Surrey Fire and Rescue Service has just returned to business as usual, as though we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic. They’ll say they’ve risk-assessed the activities, but without union input, they’re simply marking their own homework.
‘Frankly, if Surrey’s fire service was properly staffed, they would be able to safely manage an outbreak like this. But a decade of cuts have put the service in an extremely vulnerable position, annihilating any resilience. Cutting another three fire engines in October would be reckless and dangerous.’