The reputation of the fire and rescue service in the public psyche means firefighters can often gain access to households where other services are turned away. This trusted status is enabling Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service (GFRS) to play a vital role in a Public Health England (PHE) pilot, aimed at reducing the winter pressure on NHS and local council services.
Before starting the pilot, GFRS had already started to focus its prevention activities on the most vulnerable groups and to look at making it more wide ranging.
John Beard, GFRS Head of Community Safety, said: “Rather than just carry out traditional home fire safety checks, we started working more closely with colleagues in safeguarding teams and adult social care, exploring how the interactions our staff were having could deliver benefits across a much wider section of the public sector”.
The approach from PHE gave this work added impetus. Since October 2015 firefighters have been delivering Safe and Well checks, aimed primarily at the age 65 and over.
As well as routine fire safety, firefighters are talking to householders about everything from keeping warm to flu jabs. “We’ll be discussing cold homes and issuing residents with room thermometers. We’ll talk about the flu jab and refer them if they have not already been contacted by their GP. We talk to them about social isolation, which is a big issue,” said Beard. “On top of that we also carry out a simple mobility test, seeing how quickly they can get out of a chair and move across the room. Then we can refer them to a range of agencies to ensure they get the support needed to reduce the risk of them falling.”
The fire service is also conducting an increasing number of coordinated visits with partners from other agencies, such as social workers, adult care staff, Age UK and teams of specialist practitioners.
John Beard said “We are making the most of our time when we are invited into people’s homes. If we can take the opportunity to pass on messages and advice from partners we will do so. We go further though as we are actively signposting those in need to the services most able to provide the early intervention”.
These early interventions are having a significant impact in reducing the demand on services that are already under immense pressure.
“In particular we are proving successful at reducing demand on the NHS from accident and emergency and hospital admissions,” said Beard. “Improving the health and wellbeing of communities is much wider than healthcare, it’s about behavioural patterns, social circumstances and environmental exposure. Our firefighters explore all of these.
“Other agencies find our approach very refreshing and we have done a lot of work making a compelling case to partner agencies about what we are capable of doing.”
The small rural fire service will carry out 2,000 Safe and Well visits by March 2016, a huge increase in the volume of work compared to two years ago.
Most of the visits are made by operational staff from the service’s five whole-time stations. A team from the 20 retained stations has also been set up to carry out the enhanced checks.
An emphasis on flexibility and professional judgement has ensured that the new demands dovetail well with the fire service’s core emergency work.
The visits do incur additional costs and the fire service is receiving some funding from PHE in the short term.
Beard said the approach was sustainable in the long term because of its effect in reducing demand for emergency responses.
Councillor Andrew Gravells, Gloucestershire’s Cabinet Member for public health, added: “Our Gloucestershire firefighters make a huge contribution to the safety and wellbeing of people in the county. We want to continue to make sure we’re helping as many people to stay as independent and safe as possible in their own homes. This new initiative will help them to do that. By avoiding things like hospital admissions for falls or the flu, we’re helping to free up hospital beds for emergencies which helps everyone.”