Health and Safety Executive report ‘an insult to the firefighting profession’, says union
The Fire Brigades Union has slammed a Health and Safety Executive investigation into the use of breathing apparatus (BA) and warned that the watchdog has undermined its status as an independent regulator.
The investigation, which was released this week, could pave the way for firefighters to be sent beyond the ‘bridgehead’ in a tower block – the highest safe point in the building – without activated BA.
The Fire Brigades Union has branded its conclusion “perverse” and slammed the report as “flawed, contradictory and an insult to the firefighting profession”. It says the HSE has “completely misunderstood” the realities of firefighting and failed to conduct field tests, instead relying on assertions by employers.
The union warned that firefighters were not “canon fodder” to be used to cover over the crisis in building safety caused by government and construction companies.
The union is advising its members not to place themselves in danger above the bridgehead without activated breathing apparatus, and has urged the HSE to withdraw and review its conclusions.
In 2020, the National Fire Chiefs’ Council (NFCC) published a proposal to downgrade the use of breathing apparatus (BA) in high rise fires. Existing safety procedures were developed as a result of firefighter deaths and injuries. Under new proposals, firefighters would be expected to proceed beyond the ‘bridgehead’ – the highest safe point in the building – without activated BA.
The policy was met with widespread opposition by firefighters and their union, the FBU. It warned it would overturn decades of progress on health and safety, and argued that firefighters were being used as canon-fodder as an alternative to dealing with unsafe building practices.
Three large brigades – London, Manchester and the West Midlands – have previously said, following consultation with frontline professionals, they would not implement the policy, and many others have so far refrained from doing so. However, some have announced their intention to press ahead with it.
In February 2022, a judge ruled that the policy was a matter for the HSE, and in May 2022 the FBU submitted a detailed complaint to the regulator. The HSE failed to act on this complaint for more than a year, a fact for which it later apologised.
But this week, the HSE wrote to the Fire Brigades Union with the outcome of its investigation, which supports the NFCC policy.
Matt Wrack, Fire Brigades Union general secretary, said:
“Asking firefighters to go beyond the point of safety, the bridgehead, without protection from breathing apparatus is dangerous and unlawful. Our advice to firefighters is not to put themselves in that position of danger.
“The Fire Brigades Union has no confidence in the HSE’s investigation. It is flawed, contradictory and an insult to the firefighting profession, and undermines the status of the HSE as an independent safety regulator.
“We were cut out of this investigation, at every stage, while the opinion of fire service employers was taken as fact. The investigation relies on assumptions and assertions rather than competent assessment and field testing.
“A cursory reading of the document reveals that the regulator has completely misunderstood the safe donning practice and how firefighters are trained to follow it.
“Its conclusion is perverse, and licenses the intentional exposure of firefighters to harmful substances, despite a clear, safer alternative being available.
“The HSE must withdraw and review this dangerous decision immediately. This is being used as a cheap sticking plaster option to address the failings of government and construction companies that have led to a building safety crisis. But firefighters aren’t cannon fodder and we will not allow our health and safety to be discarded in this way.
“The HSE took almost 17 months to provide these flawed outcomes, after ignoring our concerns for a year. Their actions, and lack of action, on what is a matter of safety, life and death for firefighters and the public is simply unacceptable”.