Firefighters' views on proposed service reforms

A government-commissioned study has suggested the fire service needs to become more efficient and effective.

The study by Sir Ken Knight, a former chief fire and rescue adviser to the government, called for streamlining and a shift to more part-time firefighters.

However unions have criticised it as an excuse to cut spending.

We asked some current and former firefighters what they thought of the proposed reforms and how they felt the fire service could be improved.

David Wright, 65, a retired retained firefighter

Mr Wright, from Reading, Berkshire, served with Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue between 1966 and 1986. He then worked in the fire control unit in Berkshire up to 2010.

"It's entirely right and proper there should be a review but the idea of relying more heavily on retained firefighters is deeply flawed.

"It was a completely different world when I joined the fire service in 1966. My interview was over a pint in the pub with the station commander and a whole-time officer.

Image caption The government wants the percentage of firefighters that work on a part-time basis to increase from 10% to 40%

"They accepted me and off I went. In those days there was no formal training. I did two hours a week and I learnt on the job as everyone did.

"Quite rightly, standards have changed and retained firefighters have to show the same competency levels now as whole-time firefighters.

"Local authorities have been trying to recruit retained firefighters for years but they're just not there.

"I was a gardener for a family and they were very proud to be supporting the local community by letting me be a retained firefighter.

"But there isn't the same level of local employment as there was in my day. The local employers there are now are very reluctant to let their people go during working hours because that is time they are not making money for them.

"Even back then it was a drain on small companies. During the droughts in the summer of 1976, three local companies went out of business because their employees spent so much time fighting fires.

"In principle I see no problem with relying on retained firefighters as they have to meet the same standards as whole-time firefighters now, but in practice you won't be able to rely on them if they aren't there in the first place.

"The call-out time from receiving an alert to hitting the streets was 45 seconds for a whole time crew and five minutes for a retained station. But whole time crews are usually based in cities and built up areas where it can take them a lot longer to get through traffic and reach the fire, whereas retained stations are often in rural areas where there is far less traffic, so it all evens out.

"Unless they put the retained fire service on the same basis as the armed services and compensate employers for the time their workers are away, then you are not going to see a significant enough rise in retained firefighters. And you should put self-employed people on that basis too.

"Would I recommend someone to be a retained firefighter now? Absolutely. They were some of the happiest years of my life. I was so proud to serve my local community and the community at large.

"Sometimes we were asked to deal with things that weren't very pleasant but the community needed help and that's what you are there to do.

"I can't explain in words how proud I feel to have served at a fire station for 20 years."

Henry, former firefighter

A retained firefighter for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service for 20 years, Henry - not his real name - also worked full-time as a firefighter at Southampton Airport for 20 years. He did not want to be identified.

"I agree with Ken Knight's comments. They should use more retained firefighters.

"There's only a problem with recruitment because there's such a chaotic joining process.

"They would have more success recruiting people for a retained fire service if there was a normal application process. At the moment it seems to be just word-of-mouth or if you know someone who can introduce you.

Image caption Sir Ken Knight is calling for fire service reform

"I've never seen anything on the website though or seen any adverts or anything useful.

"I only retired because I got fed up with the politics but I never fell out of love with the role.

"It used to be that the most qualified or experienced got called up first to go out with the fire truck, but then some people complained they weren't getting to go out often enough.

"So they started sending us out on a rotational pattern instead, which meant that at times you had this crazy situation where guys who lived closest to the station were waiting around for other people who lived further away. That meant instead of hitting the road in less than four minutes, we weren't getting out until after about five or six minutes.

"It's not about us. It's about getting to the fire as quickly as possible and giving the best service possible.

"I think the service does need a shake-up and it's high time they had a review. It should be run as a business and made more efficient. If it was, you wouldn't be getting situations like this arising.

"There's not many jobs that pay you to sleep, especially at some local town station.

"There's many other ways they could save money rather than reducing the number of staff, for example by cross-training; one fire authority won't recognise training completed at another, instead they waste time sending you on their own courses and paying for your time to go there as well."

Community fire safety officer

This former full-time firefighter, who did not want to be named, is currently working as a community fire safety officer.

"Trying to make up the the difference in the reduction of full-time firefighters by increasing the retained sector will only lead to massive property damages and the loss of life.

"In the first place, since the 80s, the retained side of the fire service has been struggling because fewer people work shifts now so there are fewer people who are able to give cover during the day.

"This has meant that a large proportion of the retained stations are off-the-run during the day with the obvious problems of the nearest fire engine being up to 20 minutes away.

"Secondly, retained firefighters can take up to 11 minutes to get out of the station, by the time the crew has arrived and dressed and is ready to leave, compared to about two minutes for full-time crew. That delay can have an impact on the severity of the fire by the time you reach it.

"There's also a high turn-over rate among retained firefighters, who have to commit up to 120 hours per week to remain on stand-by not more than four or five minutes from their station.

"That places a strain on their families and what they are able to do. This results in a massive resignation rate.

"Every month new retained firefighters are trained to replace those that resign, but many of the new recruits also resign and so the process continues, leaving you with a retained fire service with little experience.

"A whole-time firefighter is a lifetime career, which means highly trained and massively experienced men which you will never get with the retained system. Management will say that you get the same service, but that's what they have to say publicly.

"It's not their fault, but at the end of the day, you are going to get a second-rate service."

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