Valuing the on-call firefighters in times of crisis

Verne Lewis, Marketing Communications Manager for Essex County Fire and Rescue Service, tells FIRE all about the on-call experience during the Covid-19 pandemic

At Essex County Fire and Rescue Service, our people are our service, and those people have shown a dedication to the community like no other. This is the story of our on-call colleagues, how Covid-19 affected their role and how it has shaped their future.

Tillingham fire crews

Engagement: Keeping Healthy, Keeping Happy

The wellbeing of all our colleagues is our ultimate priority. We knew our on-call firefighters would have personal issues to contend with and acknowledged we were not their ultimate priority, so our main message was always: you and your family’s health and wellbeing come first.

Immediately our Occupational Health Team worked with our HR Team to produce a wellbeing leaflet. This simple guide signposted people to useful resources, ranging from mental health to financial support. A hard copy was sent out to all sites and a digital copy was sent to all staff.

Because of the nature of their roles, our on-call colleagues have historically been our hardest to reach employee group, so we needed to find ways of informing them with the latest guidance and Service information, which was changing rapidly.

Tom Rodwell, Employee Communications Manager, said: “Clear and regular engagement eased anxiety and feelings of isolation and helped people navigate growing pressure – which meant a happier and healthier workforce and a better service.

“One success story was our use of Facebook Workplace – 77 per cent of on-call colleagues signed up. They were able to join a dedicated on-call group for information and guidance – particularly at a time when station access was restricted.

“We also used weekly livestreams for all colleagues, hosted by our Chief Fire Officer/Chief Executive and Critical Incident Team/Recovery lead. These could be watched using any personal or work device, anywhere – either live or at any time after. It gave people the chance to ask questions and have them answered immediately. It’s something we’re planning to continue even after the pandemic is over.”

Our TRiM (Trauma Risk Management) continued throughout – if any operational colleague attends a difficult incident, a letter highlighting available resources is sent to their home address. They can then meet, either at social distance or remotely, with a TRiM Practitioner if necessary.

Saffron Walden

Availability Highs

Like every other fire and rescue service, we did not know what we would be faced with at the peak of the pandemic. We prepared for every eventuality in the initial stages – bracing for a worst case of 60 per cent operational absence, as well as scenarios of 20 per cent and 40 per cent. Thankfully, we did not come close to it: total sickness levels peaked at just over ten per cent, meaning we saw the highest availability levels in two years. 

We put this down to our on-call colleagues, with many of them not at primary workplaces or working from home during lockdown – something we are hopeful will continue to some extent as more people work from home or more flexibly as the new normal takes shape.

Continuing Training

After group gatherings were stopped, we had to quickly come up with an alternative for our on-call’s weekly training sessions. Virtual drill nights offered an hour of remote training every week, live streamed to all on-call, and covering key operational learning including hazmat, RTCs and urban search and rescue.

All sessions were recorded and available to watch at a later date, and anyone watching live submitted real-time comments and questions. This has been so successful during lockdown that it will now continue long-term and has been widened out to include wholetime colleagues too. Of course, we know this will never replace practical training, but as another channel it has meant more flexibility for our on-call colleagues and continued engagement.


“There’s no doubt we’ve faced significant challenges over the last five months, but in overcoming them we’ve found genuine positives and opportunities to embrace change”

Jo Turton, Chief Fire Officer/Chief Executive

Supporting our Ambulance Service

For three months, 19 on-call firefighters joined NHS staff on the frontline to work as ambulance drivers, alongside East of England Ambulance Service (EEAST) paramedics. In total they gave 8,350 hours and responding to an average of 4,175 emergency calls. Their work meant almost 700 extra ambulances were available during the pandemic.

Trevor Garrod is a traffic enforcement officer at Stansted Airport who has been an on-call firefighter at Braintree Fire Station for 18 years. He said: “My employer has been really supportive and enabled me to give back to communities in Essex in my on-call role as much as possible during the pandemic; they extended my furlough to enable me to continue driving ambulances.”

Our partnership with the EEAST was invaluable: not only to the people of Essex but to us as a fire and rescue service. Those who took part have learned new skills that will enhance their careers. Our relationship with EEAST has never been stronger and we are excited to explore other collaborative ways of working in the future.

To acknowledge this fantastic piece of work, we held a recognition event via Zoom for all 19 on-call colleagues, with several SLT members, including our CFO/CE and DCFO.

Recognising Value From the Start

Roger Hirst was the country’s first Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner and he is a strong advocate of Essex’s on-call firefighters and the service they provide to all those who live, work and travel in the county.

In his Fire and Rescue Plan, published 18 months ago, one of Roger’s priorities was to promote a positive culture in the workplace. He believes recognising the value of on-call firefighters and improving recruitment and retention within the on-call system is key to achieving this.

Roger said: “On-call firefighters play a vital role right within the very heart of their communities and they make such a difference. The fact that many of them volunteered as ambulance drivers during the height of the pandemic to support their emergency services colleagues clearly demonstrates their commitment to helping to keep people safe.

“They enabled Essex to lead the way in terms of collaboration, providing the best possible service to the public at a very difficult and challenging time. I am extremely proud of them all.”

Throughout the pandemic, the support of the OPFCC and all Essex public sector partners, as well as the NFCC, enabled us to continually navigate local issues and pressures to put the right control measures in place to prevent the spread.

Looking Forward

When things begin to return to a new normal, we will start to use the stories and lessons learned to encourage new people to join our service. With community spirit flourishing and working days looking so different, we hope we may be able to use this to create a successful recruitment campaign across the county.

In the meantime, our current on-call colleagues continue to be some of the unsung heroes of our story. Continuing to protect their communities and support our service alongside the rest of their day-to-day commitments.

Jo Turton, Chief Fire Officer/Chief Executive, said: “There’s no doubt we’ve faced significant challenges over the last five months, but in overcoming them we’ve found genuine positives and opportunities to embrace change.

“It’s been inspiring to see the way on-call colleagues have stepped up, whether that’s in the increased availability they’ve given, their willingness to embrace new ways of working or their volunteering within the community. I couldn’t be prouder of each and every one of them.

“We’ve worked so hard during this time to respond to the changing needs of our workforce I’m so excited to continue to harvest these ideas and actions to ensure we’re an inclusive workplace that stays ahead of the game.”

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