COVID-19 inspection: London Fire Brigade

Published on: 22 January 2021

Publication types: COVID-19 and Letter

Fire and Rescue Services: London

In August 2020, we were commissioned by the Home Secretary to inspect how fire and rescue services in England are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. This letter from HMI Matt Parr to London Fire Brigade sets out our assessment of the effectiveness of the brigade’s response to the pandemic.

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Summary

The pandemic is a global event that has affected everyone and every organisation. Fire and rescue services have had to continue to provide a service to the public and, like every other public service, have had to do so within the restrictions imposed.

For this inspection, we were asked by the Home Secretary to consider what is working well and what is being learned; how the fire sector is responding to the COVID-19 crisis; how fire services are dealing with the problems they face; and what changes are likely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We recognise that the pandemic is not over and as such this inspection concerns the service’s initial response.

I am grateful for the positive and constructive way your brigade engaged with our inspection. I am also very grateful for the positive contribution your brigade has made to your community during the pandemic. We inspected your brigade between 21 September and 2 October 2020. This letter summarises our findings.

In relation to your brigade, the Mayor of London moved the London Resilience Partnership to an active phase on 11 March 2020.

In summary, we were impressed by the brigade’s preparedness for the pandemic and how it continued to fulfil its statutory functions, protect the public and support staff wellbeing.

The brigade was quick to review its plans to make sure they were good enough for an effective response to the pandemic. It was swift to work with others. This pace of change is a big improvement, considering our findings when we inspected the brigade in 2019. The brigade’s staff carried out a range of additional roles to support partners across the capital. This meant that Londoners were better supported through the first phase of the pandemic. These roles included:

  1. safely attending to, and transporting, people who had died outside of hospitals;
  2. driving ambulances;
  3. giving medical help to patients;
  4. making and distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) for organisations that were responding to the pandemic;
  5. giving extra support to the vulnerable; and
  6. informing the public about how to protect themselves from fire risks.

The brigade acted early to build resilience across its workforce. It put in place arrangements and safe systems of work that maximised staff attendance, so that services to the public weren’t disrupted. It engaged well with staff, including on issues relating to wellbeing. It also made sure that staff had the resources they needed to do their jobs safely and effectively. This included giving PPE to all who needed it, as well as extra technology to facilitate opportunities for remote working. The brigade has used learning from the first phase of the pandemic to inform its future decision-making. It has also shared its learning nationally, and with other Greater London Assembly organisations.

We recognise that the arrangements for managing the pandemic may carry on for some time, and that the brigade is now planning for the future. In order to be as efficient and effective as possible, London Fire Brigade should focus on the following areas:

  1. It should continue to determine, as it already is, how it will adopt for the longer term the new and innovative ways of working introduced during the pandemic, to secure lasting improvements.
  2. It should make sure all wholetime firefighters are fully productive, while minimising the risk of them contracting or spreading the virus.
  3. It should consider how to make sure all its operational staff continue to have the fitness they need. This includes giving them the required training and, where appropriate, assessment.

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Preparing for the pandemic

In line with good governance, the brigade had comprehensive pandemic flu and business continuity plans in place, which were in date. These plans were activated.

The brigade has reviewed its pandemic flu plan, both prior to the pandemic in January 2020 to reflect the changing situation and in September 2020 regarding what it has learned during the first wave.

The plans were good enough to help the brigade to anticipate and mitigate the risks presented by COVID-19, including maintaining an appropriate level of fire cover and protecting its staff.

The brigade’s plans included corporate and departmental business continuity plans, a strategic resourcing policy and a pandemic flu policy/plan. The plans cover arrangements to maintain staffing and keep employees safe (i.e. making premises safe, implementing social distancing measures, increased hygiene standards for staff, providing hand sanitisation, increasing cleaning regimes and supplying PPE). The plans also covered wider issues such as:

  1. schooling;
  2. foreign travel;
  3. local quarantines;
  4. the impact of the pandemic on transport infrastructure;
  5. restricting people to work from home;
  6. remote working; and
  7. mass gatherings.

In addition, the plans reference: vaccination programmes; time delays; prioritisation of access; preparation for further waves of the pandemic; and the government’s continuous review of the pandemic, and other national guidance, with the necessary links embedded into the plans.

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Fulfilling statutory functions

The main functions of a fire and rescue service are firefighting, promoting fire safety through prevention and protection (making sure building owners comply with fire safety legislation), rescuing people in road traffic collisions, and responding to emergencies.

The brigade has continued to satisfy its core statutory functions throughout the pandemic in line with advice from the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC). This means the brigade has continued to respond to calls from the public in a timely manner and effectively respond to fires and other emergencies. The brigade has continued prevention and protection work and has targeted its resources to those who are most at risk. It has also continually adapted its community safety messaging to reflect changing circumstances during the first phase of the pandemic. For example, the brigade identified a specific risk with increased ‘balcony barbecue’ fires. The brigade led a media campaign highlighting the risks of these products. As a result of the campaign, some well-known retailers withdrew the barbecues from their product listings.

Response

The brigade told us it attended fewer incidents between 1 April and 30 June 2020 than it did during the same period in 2019.

The overall availability of fire engines was better than it was during the same period in 2019. Between 1 April and 30 June 2020, the service’s average overall fire engine availability was 98.5 percent compared with 96.1 percent during the same period in 2019. We were told that this was the result of the brigade reprioritising the use of fire engines, as well as using overtime, and continuing to recruit firefighters to fill vacancies. The brigade also had a contract in place for reserve firefighters (with a private company), but they weren’t needed. The brigade didn’t change its crewing models or shift patterns during this period. From each emergency call, it gathered information as to whether a household was self-isolating due to COVID-19. It shared this information with firefighters to ensure that safe systems of work were put in place.

The brigade told us that its average response time to fires improved during the pandemic compared with the same period in 2019. This was due to several reasons, including better fire engine availability, less road traffic and a reduction in emergency calls generally. There was a significant reduction in false calls to automatic fire alarms; this was possibly due to fewer commercial buildings being open. This reduction also meant that more engines were available to attend genuine incidents. This may not be reflected in official data recently published by the Home Office, because services don’t all collect and calculate their data the same way.

The brigade had good arrangements in place to make sure that its control room had enough staff during the pandemic.

The brigade took early action – including restricting access to the control room – to limit the risk of spreading the virus. It introduced additional cleaning regimes, increased hygiene standards and implemented social distancing arrangements. It recruited and trained a contingent of support staff to give resilience cover if needed. The brigade also had a contract with an external provider for agency staff. However, it didn’t need any of these contingencies.

Prevention

The NFCC issued guidance outlining how services should take a risk-based approach to continuing prevention activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The brigade adopted this guidance. Due to the early escalation of the pandemic in London, the brigade implemented a risk-assessed approach before the NFCC issued its guidance.

The brigade conducted fewer home fire safety checks face-to-face than it would normally undertake. The brigade reviewed which individuals and groups it considered to be at the highest risk from fire as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It did this by telephoning addresses in high-risk areas and making individual assessments during those calls. As a result, it added to its existing risk criteria those people who it determined were vulnerable (or extremely vulnerable) in terms of the virus, in line with the latest government guidance. Where the brigade found people to be at the highest risk from fire, it booked appointments for home safety visits. Firefighters carried out these visits, and the brigade made safeguarding referrals to other agencies where necessary.

During the telephone calls, the brigade also identified whether households were a COVID risk; it did this to make sure that it could put in place additional safe systems of work. During these calls, the brigade gave guidance to those who weren’t eligible for a home visit; this included directing people to self-help tools on its website.

The brigade recognised that more people were at home (and working from home), and that they were having more barbecues, and lighting more refuse fires in their gardens. It continually tailored its fire safety guidance to reflect the changing risks. Examples of this tailoring include its new online interactive hazard house, and a lockdown to-do list. The brigade also continued its youth engagement schemes, and its work with young people who are involved in setting fires. It did this virtually.

Protection

The NFCC issued guidance on how to continue protection activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes maintaining a high-risk inspection programme, completing desktop audits and issuing enforcement notices electronically. Activity included carrying out audits on those premises that are at the greatest risk from fire. The brigade adopted this guidance. Due to the early escalation of the pandemic in London, the brigade implemented a risk-assessed approach before the NFCC issued its guidance.

The brigade reviewed how it defines premises as high risk during the pandemic. As a result, it focused on high-rise, high-risk premises. It also reprioritised its protection work from offices to shops and homes (as offices were mostly empty). It gave extra consideration in terms of attendance to care homes and hospitals. It gathered information about the COVID risk arrangements from the owners of premises and shared these arrangements with firefighters.

The brigade also found that the level of false calls to automatic fire alarms reduced significantly – a fact that points to the impact of human behaviours. The brigade is using this information as part of a wider project that aims to reduce these types of calls.

The brigade fire safety inspectors conducted more fire safety audits than it would normally undertake. The brigade also told us there was a big increase in the number of 72d premises risk assessments that firefighters carried out in this period. This was well above the targets that had been set.

The brigade decided to continue face-to-face fire safety audits and enforcement work because it agreed risk assessments and gave staff suitable PPE. It also reintroduced risk-based desktop appraisals instead of face-to-face audits, to minimise face-to-face contact between members of staff and the public.

The brigade continued to issue enforcement notices and prohibition notices but didn’t issue any alteration notices. It also continued responding to statutory building control consultations. It revised its approach to enable fewer complex consultations to take place electronically.

It also introduced other measures to reduce social contact, such as:

  1. allowing staff to carry out audits outside of normal working hours, so they could travel at quieter times;
  2. allowing staff to hire cars, and giving them access to parking spaces, so they could avoid using public transport;
  3. using electronic documents to replace hard-copy letters; and
  4. offering the owners of premises more information on its website.

The brigade has continued to engage with those responsible for fire safety in high-risk premises with cladding similar to that at Grenfell Tower.

The first Nightingale hospital was built in London. The brigade worked with the hospital’s responsible person to put in place suitable and reasonable fire safety measures.

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Staff health and safety and wellbeing

Staff wellbeing was a clear priority for the brigade during the pandemic. It identified wellbeing problems and responded to any concerns and further needs. Senior leaders actively promoted wellbeing services and encouraged staff to discuss any worries they had.

Most staff survey respondents told us that they could access services to support their mental wellbeing if needed. Support put in place for staff included occupational health and employee counselling services. The brigade offered these services virtually, once the providers had received the necessary training. The brigade also put in place new mental health peer support arrangements.

Staff most at risk from COVID-19 were identified effectively, including those from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background and those with underlying health problems. The brigade worked with staff to develop and implement processes to manage the risk. Employees received a personal feedback sheet on completion of an individual risk assessment. Staff discussed these sheets with their line managers, which resulted in the brigade offering tailored solutions and support to meet staff needs. The brigade also gave guidance on a wide range of topics, including:

  1. personal health and wellbeing;
  2. caring for others;
  3. home schooling;
  4. domestic violence;
  5. webinars; and
  6. increased support.

The brigade also recognised the resilience of its payroll as a priority, given the increasing pressures on families’ personal finances (for instance, because other employers were furloughing staff). These measures helped to give staff the necessary safeguards so they could safely carry out their roles.

Wellbeing best practice was also shared with other parts of the Greater London Assembly and the NFCC. The brigade has discussed with its staff how it should plan for the potential longer-term effects of COVID-19 on its workforce.

The brigade made sure that firefighters and control room operators were competent to do their work during the pandemic. However, while the brigade continued firefighter fitness training, it paused fitness testing. At the time of our inspection, it had restarted most of the off-station training that it had paused.

The brigade assessed the risks of new and existing work to make sure its staff had the skills and equipment needed to work safely and effectively.

The brigade gave its workforce appropriate PPE in a timely manner. It participated in the national fire sector scheme to procure PPE, which allowed it to achieve value for money.

Staff absence

Absences have decreased compared with the same period in 2019. The number of shifts lost due to sickness absence between 1 April and 30 June 2020 decreased by 25.1 percent compared with the same period in 2019.

The brigade updated its absence policy so that it could better manage staff wellbeing and health and safety, and make more effective decisions on how to allocate work. This included relaxing formal absence management processes; giving information about recording absences; and self-isolation, shielding, testing and associated guidance for managers. Data was routinely collected on the numbers of staff either absent, self-isolating or working from home.

Staff engagement

Most staff survey respondents told us that the brigade provided regular and relevant communication to all staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. This included regular one-to-ones with a manager, virtual team meetings, town hall meetings, written correspondence with staff about wellbeing and health and safety, and a dedicated information section on the brigade’s intranet.

Following the swift changes to the brigade’s ways of working in response to COVID-19, it intends to expand its remote working arrangements, and its virtual arrangements for communications, training and wellbeing support. The brigade is also reviewing the level and speed of its communication with staff. The change of approach in relaxing elements of policy, engaging with staff and enabling new ways of working has helped to empower employees and engender a more mature relationship with them. The brigade would like to continue this approach. During this period, it also has launched its ‘Togetherness’ strategy, which aims to improve diversity and inclusion across the brigade.

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Working with others, and making changes locally

To protect communities, fire and rescue service staff were encouraged to carry out extra roles beyond their core duties. This was to support other local blue light services and other public service providers who were experiencing high levels of demand, and to offer other support to its communities.

The brigade carried out the following new activities across London:

  1. working as part of pandemic multi-agency response teams (PMARTs) to safely deal with the deceased outside of hospitals (making bodies safe and transporting them);
  2. driving ambulances and assisting with appropriate medical interventions;
  3. making and supplying face masks to the NHS;
  4. organising and distributing PPE for agencies; and
  5. packing and delivering food and medicine for vulnerable people.

A national ‘tripartite agreement’ was put in place to include the new activities that firefighters could carry out during the pandemic. The agreement was between the NFCC, National Employers and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), and specified what new roles firefighters could provide during the pandemic. Each service then consulted locally on the specific work it had been asked to support, to agree how to address any health and safety requirements, including risk assessments. If public sector partners requested further support outside the tripartite agreement, the specifics would need to be agreed nationally before the work could begin.

The brigade consulted locally with the FBU to implement the tripartite agreement. Other unions were engaged, including GMB, UNISON, FOA and Prospect, as appropriate.

All of the new work done by the brigade under the tripartite agreement was agreed on time for it to start promptly and in line with the request from the partner agency.

All new work, including that done under the tripartite agreement, was risk-assessed and complied with the health and safety requirements.

An extra allowance was paid to all staff who volunteered to be seconded to the ambulance service. The brigade made this payment to reflect changes in shift patterns and work locations, as well as new duties and training that staff carried out.

All activities to support other organisations during this period were monitored and reviewed. The brigade has identified which to continue, for example PMARTs.

Local resilience forum

To keep the public safe, fire and rescue services work with other organisations to assess the risk of an emergency, and to maintain plans for responding to one. To do so, the service should be an integrated and active member of its local resilience forum (LRF).

In London, there are LRFs at both pan-London and borough level. Ultimately, the London Strategic Partnership oversees activity. The Mayor of London chairs this partnership. Other pan-London groups include the partnership’s strategic co-ordination group and the London Transition Board. The board includes representatives from government, business and other agencies. LRFs also operate in each of the capital’s boroughs.

The brigade was an active member of the above forums during the pandemic. The brigade told us that the LRF’s arrangements enabled the service to be fully engaged in the multi-agency response.

As part of the LRF’s response to COVID-19, the brigade was able to allocate suitably qualified staff to participate in the above forums and associated sub groups without affecting its core duties. Also, the brigade has funding to provide staff who host and offer services to the LRF. This arrangement happens through the London Resilience Group.

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Use of resources

The brigade’s financial position hasn’t yet been significantly affected by COVID-19. However, the brigade must address an unexpected in-year budget reduction during 2020/21 from the Mayor of London. In addition, the brigade is still identifying overtime costs for backfilling ambulance driver assist work.

The brigade has made robust and realistic calculations of most of the extra costs it has faced during the pandemic. Up to 30 June 2020 these included:

  1. additional staffing-related costs;
  2. PPE;
  3. sanitisations;
  4. additional cleaning; and
  5. IT and associated equipment.

The brigade’s regular monitoring of financial costs and risks has enabled it to fully understand the effect this will have on its previously agreed budget and anticipated savings.

It has received just under £2m of extra government funding to support its response. By 30 June 2020 it had spent approximately £1.3m on the above additional areas of cost. It has shown how it used this income efficiently, and that it mitigated against the financial risks that arose during this period.

However, the brigade hasn’t done enough to exploit opportunities to make savings during this period. The only efficiency that the brigade has identified is £75,000 for spending less on fuel. The brigade is well funded and, as we found during our first inspection of the brigade during 2019, it doesn’t have a strong track record of making efficiencies.

The brigade didn’t use any of its reserves to meet the extra costs that arose during this period.

Ways of working

The brigade changed how it operates during the pandemic. For example, it helped staff to work from home. It introduced electronic ways to offer staff training, and to communicate with staff internally and externally. It also made business processes electronic. It had the necessary IT to support remote working where appropriate. Where new IT and supporting equipment was needed, it made sure that procurement processes achieved good value for money.

The brigade could quickly implement changes to how it operates. Compared to our inspection findings in 2019, this is a big step up in pace. This allowed its staff to work flexibly and efficiently during the pandemic. The brigade is reviewing how to adapt its flexible working arrangements for the longer term to make sure it has the right provisions in place to support a modern workforce.

The brigade has had positive feedback from staff on how they were engaged with during the pandemic. As a result, the brigade plans to adopt these changes into its usual procedures and consider how they can be developed further to help promote a sustainable change to its working culture.

The brigade has shared learning to inform the wider sector through the NFCC. It has also made good use of the resources and guidance available from them to support its workforce planning, and help with its work under the tripartite agreement.

Staffing

The brigade had enough resources available to respond to the level of demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to reallocate resources where necessary to support the work of its partner organisations.

Some firefighters volunteered to be seconded to the ambulance service, to carry out the new activities agreed under the tripartite agreement.

Arrangements put in place to monitor staff performance across the brigade were effective. This meant the brigade could be sure its staff were making the best contribution that they reasonably could during this period. The brigade kept its response staffing levels to meet existing standards. Among other ways, it used overtime to do this. It didn’t review these levels to reflect changing levels in risk. We expect services to keep their processes under review to make sure they use their wholetime workforces as productively as possible.

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Governance of the service’s response

Each fire and rescue service is overseen by a fire and rescue authority. There are several different governance arrangements in place across England, and the size of the authority varies between services. Each authority ultimately has the same function: to set the service’s priorities and budget and make sure that the budget is spent wisely.

The Deputy Mayor of London (Fire and Resilience) oversees the work of the London Fire Commissioner. During the pandemic, she was actively engaged in discussions with the commissioner and the brigade on its ability to discharge its statutory functions during the pandemic. The London Assembly’s fire, resilience and emergency planning committee gave further scrutiny.

The Deputy Mayor of London (Fire and Resilience) maintained effective ways of working and a constructive relationship with the brigade. This made sure the brigade could fulfil its statutory duties as well as its extra work supporting the LRF and the tripartite arrangements.

During the pandemic, the Deputy Mayor of London (Fire and Resilience) continued to give the brigade proportionate oversight and scrutiny, including of its decision-making process. She did this by regularly communicating with the Commissioner and receiving the brigade’s written briefings. She is fully engaged in developing and putting in place the brigade’s transition and recovery planning. She is also considering along with the commissioner how lessons from the pandemic can be incorporated into plans to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the brigade.

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Looking to the future

During the pandemic, services were able to adapt quickly to new ways of working. This meant they could respond to emergencies and take on a greater role in the community by supporting other blue light services and partner agencies. It is now essential that services use their experiences during COVID-19 as a platform for lasting reform and modernisation.

The London Fire Brigade has shown that it can implement effective change quickly. It has improved its collaboration with other agencies and fire and rescue services. It has reviewed lessons learned, reflected them in its pandemic flu planning and used them to help inform longer-term transformation.

It is looking at ways in which its workforce can support partners in the long term, and how sustainable this is. Its blended approach – of face-to-face and virtual prevention and protection work – has improved its targeting of resources to risk; this will continue. The approach has resulted in an increase in productivity within protection.

Moreover, the brigade has accelerated its technological transformation. And it is considering how virtual platforms and remote working can help to promote innovation and new ways of working. It also recognises the need to bridge the virtual gap in the absence of face-to-face contact, so that staff still feel connected and supported.

Good practice and what worked well was shared. Staff were involved with several NFCC working groups. The brigade quickly shared its fire safety guidance on setting up the first Nightingale field hospital; it did this along with planning and risk assessments for new work with the ambulance service and other partners, and risk assessments for existing prevention, protection and response work.

The brigade shared information with partners and other fire and rescue services about testing levels of staff and internal infection rates. This informed the pan-London resilience picture and resilience levels across the three ‘buddy’ control rooms. It has shared risk assessments for the PMART work with the coroners and mortuary services. The brigade shared its approach for employee peer support and counselling services with police and ambulance services.

The brigade has also used learning from other agencies and fire and rescue services. It is reviewing working practices against NFCC guidance. The brigade has identified new technology to improve virtual audit training for fire safety staff. It has also identified new online community safety tools for the public, from other fire and rescue services. And it has learned from Transport for London in terms of managing COVID-related absences of frontline staff and giving support to BAME staff.

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Next steps

We propose restarting our second round of effectiveness and efficiency fire and rescue inspections in spring 2021, when we will follow up on our findings.

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Get the press release

Too many firefighters prevented from fully supporting public during COVID-19 pandemic

Read the national report

Responding to the pandemic: The fire and rescue service’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020

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