Wigan Council using firefighters to be ‘health champions’

Firefighters in Wigan have become ‘health champions’ in their local community. Thanks to specialist training they are able to use their contact with residents to promote healthy messages, give advice and signpost people to help. In total, they work with 20 different agencies.


Firefighters in Wigan have become ‘health champions’ in their local community. Thanks to specialist training they are able to use their contact with residents to promote healthy messages, give advice and signpost people to help. In total, they work with 20 different agencies. Firefighters in Wigan have become part of the drive to change behaviours by becoming ‘health champions’.

All 190 firefighters have been given specialist training in public health as part of the local council’s Making Health Everyone’s Business initiative. The scheme was launched seven years ago to make the most of the daily contact that non-health specialists have with people in the community.

So far more than 1,000 people have been trained from council workers to people involved in amateur sports clubs. Like them, firefighters have also been trained.

It allows them to offer basic health advice and signpost people to relevant services that can help. The support is normally delivered alongside the service’s wider fire safety checks services which sees visits made to 6,500 homes a year.

During these visits the firefighters take the opportunity to raise any health issues when appropriate and signpost people to relevant services. Wigan Borough Manager Steve Sheridan says: “With the work we do we gain access to people in the community who may need help – not just with fire safety but with wider issues. We can help link them in with the health and social care agencies that are best able to help. So if Mrs Wigan is in a property and looks to be living in poverty and is cold, fire crews will refer her to the relevant agency that might come in and assess fuel consumption and other health needs.

“Likewise, if officers notice that someone has problems with drugs or alcohol they’ll ask if they want to be referred. Sometimes they say no, sometimes they say yes.”

The firefighters are also trained to recognise signs of domestic abuse or safeguarding issues for children. “We’re not trying to make firefighters into social workers. But they can be the eyes and the ears. Because of our work six or seven children under the age of 10 were taken into care in a two-year period. I’m not happy this had to happen, but I’m quite satisfied that it did. We can save lives in different ways.”

But it is not just one-way traffic. The Fire and Rescue Service also accepts referrals from other agencies. It is currently working with 20 agencies, including Age UK, mental health organisations, midwives, social care, hospitals and social housing provider Wigan and Leigh Homes.

Anyone from any of these agencies who is out visiting people in the community and believes there may be other issues relating to fire safety can fill out an electronic form that goes directly to the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.

The referral is then triaged and for those deemed to be very high risk a Wigan-based community safety adviser will attend. For those considered to be of lower risk one of the local fire crews will attend.

All fire officers and the service’s six community safety advisers receive the same training, however the community safety advisers work only in the community and do not attend fires. They, therefore, have more time to spend with the high-risk cases.

Fire officers are also trained in Heart Start, a scheme run as part of the Making Health Everyone’s Business programme in partnership with the British Heart Foundation. It aims to teach people practical skills such as performing CPR and putting someone in the recovery position as well as using defibrillators. It is offered each year to every primary school in Wigan for children in year six.

The crews host a two-hour workshop and also cover basic fire safety and other issues alongside the Heart Start work. “If a school is near a water risk, we’ll address water safety, if it’s near a busy road where there are lots of accidents, we’ll address road safety,” says Mr Sheridan. “The firefighters know the area really well.”

This is just one element of the wider work it does with young people. Wigan borough runs two cadet schemes for young kids in the community. They learn the skills that firefighters have – not just how to pump water but about the hydraulics that are involved. It is for teenagers aged 14 to 16. They attend one night a week for two years.

On top of this all four fire stations in Wigan open their doors one night a week as youth clubs. The initiative – called the Doorstep Club – is run and supervised by the Wigan and Leigh Cultural Trust and offers activities such as boxing, football, dance and climbing walls. It was set up two years ago with a £350,000 grant from Sport England.

Professor Kate Ardern, Wigan’s Director of Public Health, is full of praise for the work. She says the local Fire and Rescue Service plays a “pivotal role in supporting public health messaging and raising awareness.”

Contact: sheridas@manchesterfire.gov.uk