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FBU protest, 2015

FBU protest, 2015. Photo: Roger Blackwell / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The Fire Brigades Union is facing a political attack for defending its members' health and safety, reports Luke Porter, a firefighter in south Yorkshire

The firefighters’ union, the FBU, is facing an unjustified and highly political attack for defending the health and safety of its members.

The attack on the FBU is being led by Zoe Billingham, Head of HM Inspectorate of Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS). She claims that the FBU is guilty of “restrictive” working practices that are preventing willing firefighters from volunteering for additional duties to help out in the covid pandemic.

Her argument is framed in terms of the ‘national interest’ being undermined by the union.

Billingham and the Fire and Rescue inspectorate are fronting the government’s agenda. A report was presented to the media without consultation with the FBU, after a working agreement between the employers and the FBU ran out.

Lord Greenhalgh, the Tory fire minister, has used the report to try and drive a wedge between rank-and-file firefighters and the union. He claimed:

“It is extremely disappointing and frustrating to note the report’s findings that so many of our brave firefighters have been prevented from stepping up to support the pandemic response because of the actions of the Fire Brigades Union.

“In the weeks and months ahead there is an even bigger role to play in the roll out of vaccination and testing, and I call on all firefighters and fire and rescue staff to join this effort.”

Smoke and mirrors

The reality of firefighters’ role, throughout the pandemic, is very different to what HM inspectors of Fire and Rescue and Lord Greenhalgh claim.

Last March the FBU and the National Fire Chiefs Confederation, along with councils and National Employers met to agree a joint strategy. This agreement allowed firefighters to go beyond their normal working practices to deal with the crisis.

In a national pandemic, health and safety is obviously a paramount concern, to keep workers safe and stop reinfection and the virus spreading.

As the FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack has pointed out, firefighters have insisted on a best-practice approach to the crisis, and they should be congratulated that no firefighter has died during the pandemic. Matt added,

“The FBU has from the start wholeheartedly supported the [agreed] response to the pandemic, and as a result of agreements delivered by the union, firefighters have been able to take on significant areas of additional work.”

Since March firefighters have been driving ambulances and moving bodies to help out, but with the insistence that their members are negatively tested before they re-enter fire stations.

So what has been an example of effective working is now being spun as “restrictive practices” by the government.

Outsourcing blame and responsibility

The attack on the FBU is on a par with the Tories blaming the public for the devastation that their own ineptitude has caused, with the additional intent of weakening the union.

At a mass FBU meeting on Thursday the very real concerns about the health and safety of firefighters were spelled out. The employers have not been clear on why they suddenly backed away from negotiations with the FBU.

It appears the employers want the PCR test – regarded as the ‘gold standard’ for Covid testing - to be changed for a lateral flow test despite the growing evidence that they are highly unreliable. Furthermore, they can provide no answer on what the arrangements will be if no tests are available.

It is disgraceful that the government are seeking to demonise the FBU for insisting on adequate protection for their members. We want our firefighters, and all other public sector workers, to be safe, not least because they are keeping us safe.

This dispute is a cause for all campaigners to take up.

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