A year into the pandemic, firefighters say they are not being provided with regular Covid-19 testing despite coming into frequent contact with those who are most vulnerable.
A spokesperson for Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service (DFRS) said that testing for staff without symptoms ‘is in the works’ and that the chief fire officer, alongside the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), has been lobbying the Government for vaccine prioritisation.
Bit the lack of regular testing has left many within Derbyshire’s fire and rescue service fearing that they could be ‘super spreaders' and giving the virus to their children and loved ones without their knowledge.
Firefighters have been told that they must restart ‘safe and well’ visits at the homes of the county’s most vulnerable.
This includes going into dozens of homes a month to check fire alarms are functioning properly and to check for other fire safety issues and provide advice.
Up until now, these checks had taken place at the doorway to avoid the risk of either contracting, or passing on, the virus.
Now each watch or shift must carry out around 10 visits per month, on top of visits usually carried out by crews while attending incidents to check on neighbouring properties and businesses in the area – particularly after a fatal fire.
A Derbyshire firefighter who spoke anonymously to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) said he believed staff were already at serious risk of contracting the virus while attending call-outs, and that home visits added to this risk.
He said he has had relatives pull out of vital childcare bubble arrangements due to the perceived risk of him catching and spreading the virus.
And he fears passing it to his kids and cannot now assist his elderly relatives with food shopping.
He and his colleagues suspect that management have not brought in regular testing for firefighters to avoid crippling workforce shortages caused by firefighters having to self isolate
Management, in an email seen by the LDRS, have said: “We have a greater understanding of Covid-19 and the PPE and safe systems of work to operate safely and effectively in our communities, even whilst the pandemic is ongoing.”
Speaking to the LDRS, the Derbyshire firefighter, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “It is a constant worry every time my child has a cough or any other symptom that might be linked to coronavirus.
“Thankfully nothing has led to that so far but I am always conscious about going home and cuddling my children before I go to bed.
“All our gaffers are making these decisions at offices in headquarters and have the option to work from home – that is just not an option for us
“It is hurting people’s mental health.
"If our managers were saying they were fighting our corner for testing or the vaccine that would be something.
“When this all started we understood we would sit behind the NHS and police in terms of the vaccine, but we did think we would be sat just behind them, not literally almost forgotten with nobody fighting our corner.
“I feel like people need to know we have not been vaccinated or tested before they let us in their properties, especially when it is the most vulnerable we would be visiting.
“When we were told about the home visits this week I just thought ‘I can’t do this anymore, this is getting ridiculous’.
“Why should we be suffering? The public need to know the danger.
"We are not cannon fodder, it feels like they do not care.”
A DFRS spokesperson said: “The health, safety and welfare of our staff and our communities has been a strategic priority for the service in response to Covid19 since the pandemic began.
“Enormous amounts of work has been undertaken to ensure the wellbeing of our staff including continual communications with all our employees and the local Fire Brigades Union (FBU) to support the workforce throughout the pandemic.
“We are in the process of introducing lateral flow testing on a wider scale, after initially having to prioritise, given the limited number of tests available to us at the time.
“This more whole-scale approach is being rolled out in accordance with Government guidance, and is now possible due to greater numbers of testing kits being made available to us.
“Therefore we have been working with the Department for Health and Social Care to set up asymptomatic testing sites as swiftly as possible.
“Prior to these sites being set up internally we have regularly signposted staff to mobile and mass testing sites and supported the FBU in advising staff, including firefighters that they can attend testing sites as their shifts commence.
“It is important to stress that our firefighters and other staff do not experience the same level of exposure in their roles as others who are undertaking specific work relating to the pandemic.
"Where firefighters could be at risk, for example at a road traffic collision, there are many safety measures in place to ensure their well-being and safety.
“The Government has identified a list of nine priority groups to receive the vaccination, there is no evidence to suggest that fire and rescue employees are at a higher risk than these.”
“Since December, the service has responded to six fatal fires and several serious fires.
“These fires underline why we must continue to deliver the face-to-face interventions that can prevent such fires from happening.
“Our work is to ‘Make Derbyshire Safer Together’, so we simply cannot sit back and not carry out these lifesaving interventions, but of course we are carrying these out with all of the necessary risk assessments, PPE and Covid secure measures possible to protect those receiving our visits, our staff delivering them and of course their families too.