TO: ALL MEMBERS
Firefighter Fitness Best practice Guide
You may be aware that the FBU has been key in developing a Firefighter Fitness Best Practice Guidance document. The work has concluded and is outlined in NJC circular 1/16 (attached). The Best Practice Guidance has been issued today and is available on the FBU website www.fbu.org.uk.
Your Brigade officials have already been sent a copy of this, along with a note on how it should be used in relation to local discussions on fitness policies. Our intention is to raise the issue of fitness with management as a priority, because many of the existing policies take a punitive approach to fitness rather than a supportive approach as suggested in this document.
Fitness to age 60
We have made it absolutely clear that all the evidence still suggests that the majority of firefighters will not be able to maintain their safe operational fitness until age 60. This is still our position. We also stressed that the imposition of a Normal Pension Age of 60 in the 2015 scheme (except in Northern Ireland where it is 55) also disproportionately discriminates against women firefighters.
While we will keep raising concerns around these points, we believe that this document provides some protection for firefighters who cannot maintain operational fitness beyond age 55.
Key points of the guidance
The new guidance has two main aims
Encouraging firefighters to take action to prevent poor health and fitness so as to enable them to perform their role safely and efficiently.
Encouraging the employer to support a firefighter in this aim, in line with their (the employer’s) duty of care.
The guidance reiterates throughout that fitness is a shared responsibility between employer and employee.
The guidance is not mandatory but it has been produced by the National Joint Council and DCLG (subsequently the Home Office) and all Fire Service employers are expected to take account of its comments, conclusions and evidence when dealing with firefighter fitness.
Our position is quite simple – unless your employer can provide a logical, robust, evidenced reason for not conforming to the guidance then their fitness policy should replicate it.
Safe and efficient operational fitness standard for firefighters
A clear standard is a vital part of the guidance if we are to ensure firefighters are safe and efficient in their role. A significant amount of research has been undertaken to come to this conclusion. This has included situations where firefighters have been tested and observed under realistic conditions at a realistic pace.
A 2014 academic report (Development of Occupational Fitness Standards for the UK Fire and Rescue Services) referred to in the guidance document stated that:
The present study indicates that firefighters with an aerobic capacity below an occupational fitness standard of 42.3 mL. kg-1.min-1 would not be guaranteed to be safe and effective in their ability to complete necessary roles within their occupation. Although this does not greatly differ from the current fitness standard of 42 mL. kg-1.min-1, it does indicate that the lower VO2 max standard of 35 mL. kg-1.min-1 for continuation of work with remedial training amongst operational firefighters is potentially unsafe for the majority of firefighters.
Firefighter safety is the reason we are supporting an operational standard, based around the recommended fitness standard of 42.3 VO2 for all firefighting roles. This was agreed by Conference 2015 and is in line with the findings of Firefit and the 2014 study. It is important to note however, that the fitness standard is designed to ensure a safe ability to undertake the tasks of firefighting rather than an arbitrary testing standard. There are likely to be individuals who (for example, due to physiological differences) meet the standard but who may have a different VO2 level to that mentioned in the guidance.
We cannot accept any fitness policy that places firefighters in potentially unsafe situations in relation to their fitness levels.
Options when firefighters cannot maintain the safe fitness standard
The best practice document accepts that even where a firefighter is aware of the need to maintain their operational fitness level and is actively working towards this with the full support of the FRA, it may be that he/she is unable to do so. It also includes a section on options available in these cases.
It quotes the DCLG Fire Minister at the time who provided a clear guarantee to firefighters aged 55 or over. This clarified that if someone fails a fitness test through no fault of their own and if they do not qualify for ill-health retirement, they will get a redeployed role or an unreduced pension.
The National Framework documents were amended accordingly and the amended wording is also contained in the guidance.
It is worth highlighting that this document does not include any option to dismiss a firefighter in this situation.
The best practice guidance outlines a consistent approach unlike many of the current policies. It includes our FBU preferred option based upon the ability of firefighters to safely perform the essential elements of the role rather than a test using surrogate tests such as shuttle runs tread mills etc. We have been involved in designing these work-related tests which should be available in spring 2016.
Managing fitness, workplace assessors and support
This document does not resolve all issues but we do believe that it is a positive way forward. We have stressed the need for a joint approach to its introduction outlining the positive benefits of a healthy workforce. To assist with this the FBU is now offering a level 3 qualification for personal trainers at no cost to FRAs. We have explored this and have already got a significant amount of interest from FRAs wanting to work with us on this.
Brigade Officials will be raising the issue of fitness with the relevant managers in an attempt to take it forward in the manner suggested by the best practice guidance.