Moving forwards: from emergency to recovery

As any frontline service will recognise, there’s never going to be a hard stop between emergency and recovery – there will always be transition. As the easing of lockdown measures continue, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) has established a ‘COVID-19 Committee’ that will coordinate continued C19 activity, support recovery and collate key learning from dealing with the pandemic.

A staff volunteer from West Midlands Fire Service delivering a food parcel to a vulnerable member of the community.

The COVID-19 crisis has been very real for some months. The fire and rescue service (FRS) has been through the high intensity emergency stage and like other emergency services, they have done what they do best; supporting the communities they serve. Over the last few weeks, staff have volunteered to carry out a number of nationally agreed activities while continuing to respond to emergencies and deal with high risk fire prevention and protection activities.

Implementing solid governance, effective and agile communications and solution-focused conversations with other stakeholders, including the Home Office, National Employers and the Fire Brigades Union, has enabled NFCC to offer exceptional support for FRSs during the pandemic. This support has included the adoption of a national approach, reducing pressure on FRSs and giving clear guidance and positions.

Roy Wilsher, Chair of the NFCC, said, “On a national level, the strategic direction was set very early on, with structures in place ensuring decisions were made by the right people with the right competencies. It also opened up other fundamental conversations at a strategic level, such as the importance of ensuring FRS core functions were maintained, fire staff were identified as critical workers, assurance was secured early in relation to PPE and services were able to secure a share of additional government funding on the basis of the contribution they were making.

“It’s in the DNA of fire and rescue services to do whatever they can to serve our communities and we must recognise the value they can bring in assisting others. But this wasn’t just about FRS staff doing their jobs. As well as ensuring we responded to the national ask, local requests through Local Resilience Forums and our own business continuity, there was a willingness to get involved and assist so that no one would look back in months to come and feel we could have done more. The low absence figures for all staff during this crisis have been a testament to that commitment.”

As with all good crisis management, NFCC developed a coordination structure very early on, which crystallised around mid-March with the first position statement on COVID-19, with a virtual meeting taking place with NFCC Committee Chairs shortly afterwards. By mid-April discussions about transition from emergency to recovery were taking place between the NFCC and the Home Office.

The tripartite agreement between the NFCC, National Employers and Fire Brigades Union have been an important part of the response. NFCC minds are now turning to recovery and fundamental questions around how to move forward and what should come next. The recent formation of the C19 Committee brings to the forefront a very stable programme, comprising a number of key strands, in two interrelated areas of work – Operational Oversight and Recovery – with enabling strands including learning, funding, industrial relations, communications and digital and data.

Monitoring of COVID-related absences and the impact this has, plus the provision and guidelines around PPE, access to testing and social distancing measures will all form part of the Operational Oversight. While in Recovery, the emphasis will be around: recruitment and training, to ensure capacity; prevention and protection, to ensure resilience and stability across all FRSs; workplace safety; and staff health and wellbeing, including mental health.

The committee will also look to take and incorporate some of the learning from the last 12 weeks to ensure NFCC is as well, if not better prepared for another extraordinary event of this kind and to feed into any national learning.

Phil Garrigan, NFCC National Resilience Lead and Chair of the C19 Committee, said, “The purpose of the C19 Committee is to ensure seamless transition from response to recovery, with that in mind we will start to gather the learning. We will be asking what we have learned through the pandemic, what have we learned about the way the NFCC and fire and rescue services work. And then how we feed that into what we do in the future but also look at how we ensure it forms part of the UK learning.

“Recovery will be a key element of the committee and that’s recovery as a sector but also recovery with regard to the respective service areas and how we continue to support our communities over the next 12 months, in conjunction with the Government’s COVID-19 Act.”

There are many more discussions to be had around technology and how new ways of working using digital platforms could play a key part of the work of fire and rescue services particularly around education, training and staff engagement, to make the best impact.

What is very clear, is that like other frontline services, the back to normal for the NFCC and the UK FRS will be a ‘new normal’. For the NFCC it’s still very early days as the C19 Committee evolves, but members are committed to learn from the last few weeks, using best practice to map out its new normal to ensure they continue to be Ready Willing and Able to deal with whatever lies ahead.