FBU voices concern over HSE report on firefighter breathing apparatus protocols

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The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has raised significant concerns regarding a recent report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on firefighting protocols, specifically the use of Breathing Apparatus (BA) and the National Operating Guidance – Fires in Tall Buildings (NOG).

The FBU’s response comes after an extensive review by the HSE into the practices of various Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) across the UK.

The HSE report and its findings

The HSE report, led by CEO Sarah Albon, evaluated the compliance of NOG against relevant regulations, including the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) and The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 (PPE).

The report concluded that FRS correctly implementing the NOG would not be breaching these duties.

It also outlined how firefighters, under certain conditions, could operate above the Bridgehead wearing BA but not under air, offering protection and communication advantages.

FBU’s Response and Concerns

The FBU expressed dismay at the HSE’s findings, describing the report as an “insult to the firefighting profession.”

General Secretary Matt Wrack criticised the HSE’s conclusions, arguing that they undermine the safety of firefighters and the public.

The union’s primary concern revolves around the recommendation of using BA not under air in specific firefighting scenarios, which they believe could expose firefighters to unnecessary risk.

Evaluating the practical implications

The report highlights a nuanced understanding of firefighting in high-rise buildings, considering the balance between operational efficiency and health and safety.

The HSE’s stance on the use of BA not under air is underpinned by a series of controls and risk assessments, deemed necessary for efficient firefighting and rescue operations in high-rise scenarios.

HSE Letter to FBU

The HSE sent a letter to the FBU on 3 November 2023 including the following information.

Findings and Decisions

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in its letter to the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), led by CEO Sarah Albon, detailed the completion of their investigation into the use of Breathing Apparatus (BA) by firefighters beyond the ‘Bridgehead Entry Control Point’.

The inquiry focused on the National Fire Chiefs Council’s National Operating Guidance for Fires in Tall Buildings (NOG) and its compliance with relevant health and safety regulations, including the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) and The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 (PPE)​​.

Enforcement and compliance

The HSE asserted that non-compliance with health and safety legislation would prompt appropriate enforcement action.

Their review found no specific manufacturer instructions on where or when BA should be donned.

HSE specialists suggested that in conditions where the atmosphere in the evacuation stairwell is safe, it is reasonable for firefighters to carry BA but not be under air, balancing the protection of the public and firefighting efficiency​​.

Comparative analysis of fire services

The HSE engaged in fact-finding interventions with various Fire and Rescue Services to understand different approaches to the NOG.

These investigations aimed to assess if their systems provided the same levels of protection as the NOG.

The letter detailed the practices of different services, such as Manchester, Merseyside, and London, and their strategies for using BA in firefighting operations.

Investigations of specific services

The HSE completed a review of the investigations at Hampshire and Isle of Wight and Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Services.

The inspectors concluded that these services demonstrated adequate risk assessment and control measures in line with the NOG, and no health and safety law contraventions were identified​​.

Engagement with NFCC and conclusion

The HSE’s engagement with the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) was also discussed, focusing on the alignment of their findings with a report authored by Andrew Strawson.

The HSE concluded that Fire and Rescue Services correctly implementing the NOG would not breach the relevant duties within COSHH and PPE Regulations but also acknowledged the importance of balancing operational and health and safety duties​​.

FBU letter to HSE

The FBU responded to HSE in a letter sent on 21 November 2023 including the following information.

Initial reaction and method of inquiry

The FBU expressed extreme disappointment with the HSE’s response to their complaint regarding the revised BA procedures, criticising both the conclusions and the method of inquiry.

They highlighted a lack of engagement with the union during the investigation process, undermining the legitimacy of the conclusions​​.

Concerns on compliance and safety

The union raised significant concerns about the compliance of the new procedures with COSHH and PPE Regulations, challenging the HSE’s stance on the donning of BA in conditions other than ‘clean air’.

The FBU argued that the HSE’s investigation overlooked key aspects of the donning process and the practicality of its implementation in rapidly changing conditions​​.

Operational safety and risk assessment

The FBU contested the HSE’s assumptions regarding the safety of the new BA procedures, emphasising the lack of practical evidence and operational understanding in the HSE’s analysis.

They expressed concerns about the increased exposure to harmful substances and the practical difficulties in safely donning BA in emergent situations​​.

Legal obligations and firefighter exposure

The union strongly disagreed with the HSE’s assertion that brief exposure to contaminants is acceptable, arguing that this stance contradicts the core statutory obligations of ensuring firefighter safety.

They maintained that the new procedures intentionally lower safety standards and are contrary to health and safety law​​.

Evaluation of fire service proposals and NFCC engagement

The FBU noted the lack of clarity in the HSE’s analysis regarding the safety of different fire and rescue service proposals and criticised the HSE for not providing specific evidence or outcomes from their engagement with the NFCC.

They also questioned the HSE’s understanding of operational firefighting environments and the validity of comparing fireground safety to other industries like chemical and waste​​.

Investigations and flawed conclusions

The FBU expressed dissatisfaction with the HSE’s investigations into specific fire services, stating that the HSE’s work supports hazardous BA procedures based on flawed investigations and misconceptions.

They also criticised the HSE for excluding the union from its investigations, leading to a loss of confidence in the HSE as an independent safety regulator​​.

IFSJ Comment

The debate between the FBU and the HSE over firefighting protocols in high-rise buildings reflects a broader challenge in ensuring firefighter safety while maintaining operational effectiveness.

The HSE’s report, advocating for flexible use of BA, is aimed at enhancing firefighters’ capabilities in complex scenarios.

However, the FBU’s concerns highlight the need for a delicate balance between innovation in firefighting techniques and the uncompromised safety of firefighters and the public.

This ongoing discussion is crucial in shaping future firefighting strategies and ensuring that safety remains paramount in the face of evolving challenges and environments.

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