West Midlands has made working with the most vulnerable people a key priority. The service’s 1,322 fire officers have been given public health training to support the people they come into contact with.
They also do specific work with young people to get them back into employment and with homeless people.
The West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service (WMFS) plays a key part in the region’s health improvement programme – and in doing so has started developing its own initiatives to reach out to some of the most vulnerable communities.
Using the Making Every Contact Count approach, the service’s 1,322 fire officers have been trained in how to deliver basic health messages – and put this to use during home safety checks.
Officers look at key things within people’s homes that relate to fire prevention, but they are also concerned with wider health and wellbeing issues, including social isolation, mobility, domestic abuse, poverty, mental health and the quality of housing.
Where appropriate they initiate conversations with people and can signpost them on to the relevant services.
This work frequently brings officers into contact with people living in poor conditions in deprived communities, including those suffering from poor mental and physical health, and has led to it paying particular attention to the most vulnerable groups.
More than 100 officers have been trained as vulnerable persons officers (VPOs) to work alongside agencies such as Age UK, local housing associations, local councils and Dementia UK.
Beyond fighting fires – the role of the fire service in improving the public’s health 11 Pete Wilson, the Head of Community Safety at WMFS, says the fire service has contact with everyone. “Other health services tend to specialise in one area – adult services, child services, etc. Whereas we focus on all areas in a community that are vulnerable to fire,” he says. “It’s not just for some charitable motive that we do this. We’d rather get there before the fire starts and prevent emergencies.”
Mr Wilson says the WMFS has focused on safety measures aimed at improving public health and in November last year published a report called “Improving Lives to Save Lives” to promote these initiatives.
The service is one of the country’s largest metropolitan Fire and Rescue Services, serving a population of 2.7 million people in seven local government authorities, and covers areas of high deprivation.
Among the most vulnerable to fire risk are the long-term unemployed and the homeless. The WMFS runs youth programmes that focus on increasing motivation, self-confidence and team work. The service also offers work experience, and runs courses at schools offering alternative curriculum provision and for Special Educational Needs groups. “It’s a long-term investment” Mr Wilson says. “If we reduce unemployment, we reduce the risk of fire. And that’s why we work with young people to help get them into employment and training.”
Work with the homeless is more specialised, led by firefighter Ian Sturmey, a VPO who links in with Birmingham’s homeless agencies, including Sifa (Supporting Independence from Alcohol).
Mr Sturmey says his work with the homeless began five years ago when there was a fire in a derelict building that resulted in the deaths of two people. Birmingham Sifa contacted the Fire and Rescue Service to find out what was being done and what could be done to help the homeless. The answer five years ago was very little.
But since then Mr Sturmey has spent a lot of time getting to know the homeless and building up their trust. He goes into Sifa’s drop in centre, mostly when he’s off duty, but also goes into squats and disused buildings that may be sheltering people. “I’ve spent time just talking to people, being genuinely interested in them. When I go into a squat, most people don’t see you as a threat when you’re with the Fire and Rescue Service, but it works better if you have their trust.”
The misuse of candles and smoking are the two greatest fire risks among the homeless. “Most won’t use or don’t have candle holders, and if they have money they’re not going to spend it on that.” “My mum gave me a load of candleholders, so I carry them and hand them out. And with the smoking, I encourage them to make sure they extinguish cigarettes properly and to use an appropriate ashtray.”
Mr Sturmey also fits smoke alarms where appropriate and when possible. “At least if they have a fire, they get an early warning. Then a chance to escape.” There have been no fire-related deaths among the homeless since he began his work.
The other side of Mr Sturmey’s work is knowing where homeless people are sheltering, so that in case of a fire the Service knows if people are likely to be in the building. “Fires in derelict buildings will be dealt with in a different way if we think someone is inside them, so it’s important that we know,” Mr Sturmey says.
The work of WMFS has even attracted the attention of world-renowned public health expert Professor Sir Michael Marmot. He has praised WMFS for recognising the link between people’s risk of fire, and the social determinants of health. He says he is “delighted” with the work they have done. “They have used their trusted brand to work across the whole community.”