Throughout the pandemic, firefighters have worked for the national interest
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is being lambasted across the media today, accused in a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) of acting as an obstacle to the engagement of firefighters in the national response to the pandemic.
As ever, it is crucial to go beyond the headlines and examine the facts.
Last year, as the pandemic began to take hold, FBU leaders reached a tripartite agreement alongside fire and rescue service chiefs and local government employers that would see firefighters pitched into the front line of the response.
The agreement was ground-breaking: established industrial relations processes were streamlined to ensure firefighters could swiftly be mobilised to undertake the most critical work — work that sat well outside of their contractual role and for which many had received only the most basic training.
Firefighters soon found themselves driving ambulances, delivering food and medicines to vulnerable people, moving dead bodies, delivering PPE to NHS establishments, assembling face shields, packing food supplies, and more.
In the national interest, the FBU had demonstrated great flexibility in ratifying such a far-reaching agreement. The union’s associated demands were about safety, not money. Understandably, it insisted on the highest level of protection: “We’ll offer up our members. Just look after them,” was the FBU’s line. Not terribly unreasonable in the circumstances.
All things considered, the agreement was a shining example of how, at a time of national emergency, stakeholders with often competing interests — in this case, bosses, workers and local politicians — could come together for the greater good.
Unfortunately, tensions mounted earlier this month when service chiefs decided that one agreed safety measure — that firefighters be required to submit a negative covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test before returning to their fire station on normal duties — was no longer sustainable, meaning that the wider agreement was placed in jeopardy.
However, instead of seeing that point of contention as a setback to be overcome, and recognising that it should be placed in the context of the considerable good that the agreement had achieved, the inspectorate — backed up by government ministers — has used it as justification for a full-scale assault on the FBU. Its report shows little regard for the great lengths the union went to in the first place to help secure the tripartite agreement, and instead demonises it as a roadblock which is placing public safety at risk.
Disturbingly, the report seems to bemoan that the union — which, let us not forget, represents the overwhelming majority of the UK’s firefighters — should have any influence at all during the pandemic, arguing that fire and rescue service bosses should be left to make decisions “unhindered”.
Worse, it uses the impasse as a pretext for a recommendation that the entire fire and rescue service national industrial relations machinery be “reformed” in a way that would undoubtedly sideline the union.
The report is a shabby and politically-motivated piece of work that has taken the good faith of FBU members and turned it against them.
Firefighters risked their lives at Grenfell Tower, only to be made scapegoats. They could be forgiven for being aggrieved that, having gone beyond the call of duty once more, they have again been kicked in the teeth.