Firefighters in Merseyside are tackling social and health inequalities in the community by educating people about the benefits of fitness, healthy eating and living a healthy lifestyle.
The Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service has been encouraging people to keep active and healthy through its Fire Fit programme for the past five years. The scheme is for the whole community, but is particularly aimed at schools. Firefighters go to schools each week and conduct 60 to 90-minute sessions, which include activities such as football and running. F
The initiative – Fire Fit – was launched by Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service in 2010 after it identified a strong link between the threat of a fire and lower levels of education, income and housing.
The need for a social programme of this type was first conceived when Liverpool hosted the World Firefighter Games as part of the larger celebration of Liverpool as the European Capital of Culture in 2008.
The Fire Fit programme uses the expertise and social status of the Fire and Rescue Service to educate people about the benefits of fitness and healthy eating. Firefighters are used as role models to help encourage people to take part in sporting activities.
The programme is rolled out across the whole community, supporting more than 40 community events a year, but particularly targets children by visiting junior and senior schools across Merseyside. Twelve schools are currently taking part in the programme. Firefighters go to these schools each week and conduct 60 to 90-minute sessions with children, which includes activities such as football and running. There is also access to a climbing wall.
The firefighters and other Service staff volunteer their time for this role. Some have specialist qualifications such as FA coaching level one, while others have expertise in nutrition. All have a passion for sport and wellbeing and for the communities they serve.
The Fire Fit programme also includes a rewards-based system, where volunteers earn points for the time they spend delivering the programme. These points are translated into a ‘bursary fund’ that is spent at the school on sporting resources such as basketball hoops and footballs.
Merseyside Deputy Fire Chief Phil Garrigan says: “The work we do is quite special. Engagement through sport is really effective. Each Fire Fit delivery team member who provides support for a community-based activity does so not for any financial reward but for the reward of knowing that they have personally put something back into the community.”
“The model only works because we have excellent highly motivated people who want to make a positive difference to our community.” Mr Garrigan, who is also a member of the Chief Fire Officers Association and is their Lead Officer on Children and Young People, says: “It’s about building up a relationship – with a school and with the children. We find that with the prolonged relationship, it allows us to deliver safety messages throughout the year. So around times like bonfire night we can be getting the fire safe message out.
“The programme helps to kick start a healthy lifestyle. Young people clearly value it, and the schools value the programme, particularly having the firefighters as role models. Schools have said that’s a good thing.”
One of the schools that benefited was Blueberry Park Primary, where the programme ran for 12 months ending in autumn 2013. The children, mostly year five, took part in monthly sessions.
Headteacher Kath Honey says: “We are delighted that our school was part of the Fire Fit programme. It was highly engaging and the children looked forward to the sessions with enthusiasm. The Fire and Rescue Service added real value to our school.”
The most visible element of the Fire Fit brand is the £5.2 million Toxteth Fire Fit Hub, which opened in 2013.
The Hub is a brand new purpose-built youth centre with facilities that include a sports hall, martial arts studio, a gym and dance studio and four five-a-side football pitches. Every evening from 5pm to 10pm the facilities are dedicated to young people.
Jennifer Van Der Merwe, the Fire Fit Hub manager, says: “The Hub is still only just over a year old, so we’re still quite new, and still evolving.”
But already the Hub has more than 1,500 young members and about 400 adult or corporate members. Each night between 70 and 150 young people come in to the Hub to use the facilities and take part in supervised activities ranging from golf and hockey to netball and karate. “You name it, we’ve probably got it going on here. There’s the gym, boxing, aerobics, Zumba... the list goes on.” said Ms Van Der Merwe.
Memberships is £5 a year for children aged six to 10 plus 50p per visit and £10 a year for those aged 11 to 19 plus £1 per visit. Adults who wish to hire venues must pay membership fee of £10 a year plus the hire costs.
The Fire Fit Hub was built with funding from Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, the Department for Education and Liverpool City Council. It comes under Myplace, a government initiative backed by the Department for Education.
The Fire Fit Hub as well as the Fire Fit programme have been recognised by the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Sport For All initiative and have been included in the IOC guide to managing Sport For All programmes. The programme has also been used nationally as a model for other fire and rescue services to develop their own health and fitness programmes.