Too many firefighters prevented from fully supporting public during COVID-19 pandemic

Dedicated fire and rescue staff stepped up to support the communities they serve during the COVID-19 pandemic, but working arrangements between fire and rescue service National Employers and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) prevented some firefighters from maximising the support they could provide to the public, a report published today has found.

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Responding to the pandemic: The fire and rescue service’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020

HMICFRS inspected how each of the 45 fire and rescue services in England responded to challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, HMICFRS found that the fire and rescue service responded very well to the pandemic. Services maintained their ability to respond to fires and many services provided pandemic-specific support outside their statutory duties.

This included driving ambulances and delivering essential items to the most vulnerable as well as personal protective equipment to those in healthcare. Firefighters also assisted in moving the bodies of those who died from the virus.

However, some fire services were unable to maximise this support due to outdated and restrictive working practices within the sector. This caused delays to how some fire and rescue services provided support. Some firefighters were also asked by their union, the FBU, not to volunteer to support the NHS Test and Trace system, and the COVID-19 vaccination programme.

Today’s report found that an agreement put in place between the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), the fire and rescue service National Employers and the FBU, aimed at making provisions for firefighters to do more to support their local communities, became more of a hindrance than a help for some services.

This agreement prevented or delayed some chief fire officers from deploying the right people with the right skills to better support communities when they were most in need of help.

HM Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services Zoë Billingham said:

“Our inspection showed an inspiring willingness from fire and rescue staff to step up and provide any support they could to help communities during these unprecedented times. I want to thank all those who stepped forward for their efforts in carrying out essential and often distressing duties and demonstrating their commitment to putting the safety of the public first.

“We now need to see the sector match these individual efforts by removing the unnecessary barriers which are preventing firefighters from providing further support when it is so desperately needed. Chief fire officers should be unhindered in their ability to deploy their workforce rapidly, safely and effectively to protect the public.

“I am calling on those responsible to act in the national interest, remove the barriers and ensure that dedicated firefighters can now use of all their considerable skills where they are most needed in our shared fight against COVID-19 and beyond. The public would rightly expect every emergency service to be doing everything within its power to tackle this pandemic.”

Last week the fire and rescue service National Employers and the FBU failed to reach a national agreement for the continuation and expansion of what additional support fire and rescue services can provide their communities during the pandemic. This includes how services can support the national vaccination programme.

This is despite the fire and rescue service National Employers confirming that all fire and rescue service staff would be provided with the same health and safety safeguards as the other agencies they are supporting, such as the NHS.

HMICFRS will be closely monitoring the consequences of this.

This report on the fire and rescue response to COVID-19 follows the inspectorate’s previous review of the sector in 2018, which made six recommendations for the fire sector to encourage it to modernise and improve its service to the public. These included:

  • Establishing a better standardisation of practice;
  • More clarity on the role of services and staff;
  • Considering whether the arrangements governing staff terms and conditions remain appropriate; and
  • Providing greater operational independence for chief fire officers.

As today’s report stresses, these previously identified issues remain and need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

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Responding to the pandemic: The fire and rescue service’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020


  1. In August 2020, the Home Secretary commissioned HMICFRS to inspect how the fire and rescue services in England responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. The tripartite agreement between the NFCC, the fire and rescue service National Employers and the FBU was signed on 26 March 2020. This agreement enabled additional areas of work to become available to the fire and rescue service to assist in meeting the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis. Details of this agreement can be found on the NFCC website (PDF document).
  3. HMICFRS inspected all 45 fire and rescue services in England between September and November 2020. These inspections were carried out remotely in accordance with COVID-19 guidance.
  4. For further information, the HMICFRS Press Office can be contacted from 9:00am – 5:00pm Monday to Friday on 07836 217729.
  5. Our out-of-hours press office line for urgent media enquiries is 07836 217729.