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       Hazards, number 163, 2023
FIRE FIGHT | HSE stands by as fire chiefs cut firefighters’ lifeline
Emergencies involving breathing apparatus are the No.1 cause of death in firefighters at work. Getting it right is a big deal, says FBU safety lead Riccardo la Torre. Which is why the union is fighting a policy change that leaves firefighters unprotected in some of the highest risk situations.


Firefighters are facing one of the biggest threats to their health and safety in decades.
In 2020, the National Fire Chiefs Council issued a dangerous new policy which would effectively remove firefighters’ breathing apparatus beyond the point of safety at a fire in a high rise building. Years later and firefighters are still battling this life-threatening policy.

At a high-rise fire, fire officers establish a safe position within the building. This  ‘bridgehead’ is the point at which firefighters prepare to advance to dangerous higher floors. Crucially, it’s where firefighters undertake a series of checks and activate their breathing apparatus (BA) – going ‘under air’ to protect them from the smoke and fumes above.

But under proposals from the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), they would be instructed to proceed without activating it. The risk to health is immediate. Working in an oxygen deficient environment without a safe air supply can lead to a firefighter losing consciousness at the scene.

And in the long term, the exposure to carcinogenic toxic fire contaminants increases the risk of cancers, heart disease and stroke.  In addition to this, a firefighter in distress, beyond the duration of a BA cylinder’s reach, will be out of the reach of rescue.

This is not just a danger to firefighters’ health and safety – it’s also a threat to public safety. Dead or injured firefighters can’t save anyone.

Firefighter action

In 2022, the FBU won a challenge against the London Fire Brigade’s attempts to introduce this new policy. The union argued at a safety panel that plans to send firefighters above the bridgehead without activated BA was a deliberate breach of health and safety law. The chair, an independent safety expert, agreed that it did not represent appropriate best practice at high rise fires. The panel ruled that the procedure must be withdrawn.  Fire authorities in Birmingham and Manchester declared they would not implement the policy.

However, several Chief Fire Officers chose to ignore this ruling, seeking to push ahead with the NFCC's recommendation.

The FBU was forced to escalate and apply for a judicial review. In February 2022, the union was informed by the judge that this application had been denied on the grounds that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was the appropriate agency to act on the matter.

HSE footdragging

Following this ruling, the union submitted a detailed complaint to the HSE in May 2022. It took the HSE over one full year to respond.

To examine this life-or-death issue, the UK government agency responsible for regulating and enforcing workplace health and safety had chosen to look at risk assessment processes in two fire and rescue services. HSE argued that other safety concerns around this practice were outside their remit.

The two services who had handed over their risk assessments took this as a green light. They communicated to their workforces that the HSE had deemed the procedure safe and acceptable.

However, there had been no such conclusion. A full investigation had by no means taken place, and the HSE had made no such declaration. The union was forced to write to the HSE again, pointing to the glaring flaws in their response and their failure to investigate the policy.

Now, by summer 2023, the HSE has conceded that their response has been unacceptable. They apologised to the FBU and have now committed to a full and proper investigation into the matter.

Firefighters welcome the apology and the promise of an investigation. But apologies and promises alone won’t save lives. The union’s complaint remains unresolved, and the procedure has still not been deemed acceptable or safe by the HSE.

The Chief Fire Officers who have communicated otherwise must rescind this misinformation. Until the investigation has been completed, this policy must not be implemented.  And the FBU believes that the conclusion is obvious: Breathing apparatus is vital for health and safety, and it must not be removed.

In the face of confusion and misinformation, the FBU has issued clear advice to all members: Firefighters should not put themselves in danger by going beyond the bridgehead without activated BA.

Building safety?

This policy is so dangerous that it may appear bizarre to those unfamiliar with the record of safety failings from fire service management and politicians. Some Chief Fire Officers have been trying to push back against safe BA procedures over the last decade.

FIRED UP  The public backs the FBU campaign for firefighters to have access to breathing apparatus (BA). But fire chiefs and Conservative ministers are more interested in the bottom line than the lifeline.

Since the Grenfell Tower fire, some have tried to downgrade procedures and firefighter safety to help the Westminster government with its building safety crisis. Instead of dealing with cladding and the failure of compartmentation, ministers want firefighters to take on even more risks because it is the cheapest option.

It is true that we are facing major issues in building safety following decades of regulations being ripped away. It is also true that we must ensure that firefighters are equipped to respond quickly to high rise fires. The FBU has warned for decades about the risks of cladding, the lack of enforcement and against cuts to our service.

But the way forwards clearly does not lie in taking away firefighters’ lifelines, leaving them exposed to injury or death while on duty. Removing BA tears up half a century of health and safety law, best practice guidance, manufacturers’ instructions and firefighter training.

It will not make living and working in high rise buildings safer or tackle the wider crisis in building safety. It simply puts firefighters and residents at greater risk.

A long history

Firefighters have used BA since World War Two, and it has become an iconic symbol of the firefighter profession.

Any member of the public will immediately recognise the cylinder, set and mask. What is lesser known is the history of struggle behind this equipment; the sets firefighters now wear on their backs were hard won.

Following the deaths of two firefighters at the 1958 Smithfield fire, the FBU launched demands for modernised BA that would protect lives. The union won that campaign, and since then procedures – including entry control points, donning in fresh air, use of tallies and warning signals – have continued to develop in response to numerous deaths and injuries.

But even with these in place, BA emergencies are the number one cause for the death and injury of firefighters in the line of duty. That is why FBU health and safety reps work tirelessly across fire services to hold the line.

On the ground, our reps know that we cannot allow the rights we have won to be rolled back, undermined or stripped away. No other fire and rescue service organisation or body, including other ‘representative bodies’, have had the courage or means to challenge the NFCC on this.

This latest chapter in the fight for BA safety has made the need for the collective voice of organised firefighters clearer than ever.  A failing HSE, cut to the bone, or NFCC bosses’ committees cannot be relied upon to protect and defend the health, safety and welfare of firefighters.

Over 10,000 people have now signed a petition calling on the NFCC chair Mark Hardingham to withdraw the policy. The public are with firefighters on this issue; politicians and the fire and rescue sector must follow suit.

As our history demonstrates, we must organise and fight for our lives.

Wildfire failures ‘negligence driven by cuts’

A Major Incident Review by London Fire Brigade looking at its response to the July 2022 wildfires has confirmed that a shortage of crews and fire appliances hampered the response.

Firefighter shortages meant 39 fire engines were not available to help tackle the wildfires that burnt across London in July 2022, the review revealed. This caused “longer response times, an inability to resource specific incidents at the level requested by incident commanders and an inability to relieve operational colleagues at protracted incidents,” the review stated.

But the review, published in July 2023, added that, given the unprecedented demands of the day, even if the brigade had the extra 39 appliances there would still have been difficulty in resourcing the fires and relieving crews.

The fires saw 16 homes in Wennington, Havering, destroyed in one of the blazes on 19 July 2022.

Since 2010, around one in five firefighter jobs have been cut, while the risk of extreme weather events has been on the rise.

Commenting on the review findings, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: “The profit demands of big business and the inaction of government are driving a climate crisis, and last year’s wildfires demonstrated how ill-prepared we are to meet it.

“Ministers and chief fire officers often talk about ‘resilience’ – but they are not providing adequate resources for firefighters to do their jobs. Since 2010, more than one in five firefighter jobs have been lost and unprecedented numbers of fire stations have been closed.

“On the worst day of the fires in 2022, 39 fire appliances were out of action in London because there weren’t enough firefighters to crew them.

“The UK Fire and Rescue Service is locally fragmented, and suffers from a lack of national strategy and planning on issues like wildfires. Wildfires have been on the government’s risk register for a decade, but they have failed to learn the lessons of last year’s wildfires. This is negligence driven by cuts and complacency.

“The Westminster and devolved governments must take responsibility for this issue, bring together a UK-wide strategy for wildfires, and reverse the cuts of recent years.”

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Emergencies involving breathing apparatus are the No.1 cause of death in firefighters at work. Getting it right is a big deal, says FBU safety lead Riccardo la Torre. Which is why the union is fighting a policy change that leaves firefighters unprotected in some of the highest risk situations.

Firefighter action
HSE footdragging
Building safety?
A long history

Wildfire failures ‘negligence driven by cuts’

Hazards webpages
Deadly business