• Fire chiefs say they were not asked about ‘practicalities’ before urgent safety checks were ordered
  • Trust leaders describe ‘chaos’ as fire services struggle to respond to NHS requests
  • Fire services tell NHS bosses they will be unable to carry out inspections over the weekend
  • Trust chief: ‘Joined up government at its best’

Fire service chiefs say they were not consulted over the “practicalities” of conducting urgent fire safety checks at hospitals this weekend in response to the Grenfell tower disaster, HSJ can reveal.

Senior officers from England’s nine fire and rescue services were understood to be “seeking further clarity” from central government on Sunday after health secretary Jeremy Hunt ordered checks on hospital inpatient units to be completed during the weekend.

In correspondence seen by HSJ, one fire service director said the sector “did not appear to have been consulted over the practicalities of the request”.

A meeting between government officials and the national lead for fire service response was understood to have taken place on Sunday afternoon to discuss Mr Hunt’s request for urgent safety checks.

One trust chief executive told HSJ there was “chaos” in the capital, with London Fire Brigade refusing to carry out checks because of the lack of planning and the volume of work it was already undertaking in the wake of the Grenfell disaster.

Another trust chief in the east of England said: “Our fire service had not heard anything about it from their end so when the NHS trusts started to ring them, it was all new news.

“Plus they are inundated with safety checks on residential blocks. Joined up government at its best.”

Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Foundation Trust chief Sarah-Jane Marsh said on Twitter that she only found out about the NHS Improvement request after it was revealed by HSJ on Saturday evening. Two emails from the national regulator detailing the request had gone into her “spam” folder, she tweeted.

NHS Improvement chief executive Jim Mackey emailed trust chief executives and chief operating officers on Saturday afternoon at Mr Hunt’s request to arrange urgent inspections of all inpatient accommodation this weekend.

The email was sent hours before communities secretary Sajid Javid confirmed all samples of cladding on buildings potentially at risk had failed government combustibility tests.

NHS Improvement contacted trusts but was not responsible for alerting fire services. Some trusts had already undertaken a fire assessment and the request only applied where this had not happened.

By Saturday night, some fire services were informing NHS executives that they could not meet the request for a “rapid turnaround” of fire safety checks on all inpatient accommodation by Sunday evening.

HSJ has learned trusts are being told:

  • Fire services face major logistical challenges as the number of premises requiring urgent safety checks is “very large” compared to the “small number” of specialist staff.
  • Safety inspectors are already dealing with large numbers of inspections on local authority buildings.
  • The NHS request has legal implications because fire service specialist staff only audit trusts’ own fire assessments and do not carry out inspections.
  • Specialist fire inspection staff are not on duty over weekends and are not subject to “recall”.
  • Work could only be carried out if staff volunteer to work outside their normal Monday to Friday hours.
  • Some services only have “four or five” specialist fire inspectors.
  • Inspections required would take “a significant period of time” because of the number of buildings involved.

Another emergency meeting of some fire chiefs is set to take place tomorrow morning following the national meeting today to discuss the response to the NHS request.

Trusts were asked by NHS Improvement to fill in questionnaires about their estates and inpatient accommodation last week as part of the government’s response to the Grenfell disaster, which claimed 79 lives.

Several trusts are preparing holding statements to respond to NHS Improvement by this evening’s deadline, pointing out they are unable to proceed without fire service backing.

A Home Office spokesperson said: ”“Fire and rescue services around the county are working hard to support those carrying out urgent safety checks.”