Could you fight fires and cut drivers free from crash wreckages? Suffolk fire crews looking for new recruits
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Firefighting is a job that demands courage, commitment and dedication but in return it provides a huge amount of job satisfaction and personal fulfilment.
Yet despite the well-deserved respect firefighters gain for tasks ranging from rescuing people from burning buildings to cutting victims free after road traffic collisions, in Suffolk there is a shortage of firefighters doing the job on a part-time basis.
Across the county there should be 465 on-call firefighters poised at a moment’s notice to drop their day jobs and respond to an alert, which could be something as minor as a bin fire, or a huge and devastating blaze like the one that recently ripped through businesses and homes in Sudbury.
But there are currently only 415 in Suffolk, leaving a shortfall of 50 – and there is also a 10% turnover of staff.
That is why Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) is in the midst of a big recruitment drive.
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At present, 29 out of Suffolk’s 35 fire stations are crewed solely by on call firefighters – previously known as ‘retained’ firefighters – so it is vital to recruit and keep the required number of staff. At a one-pump station this includes a watch commander, two crew commanders and eight firefighters.
Ken Ashby, on-call firefighter liaison officer with SFRS who is leading the recruitment drive, believes there are several factors that make it difficult to retain personnel, including the county’s rural location.
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On-call firefighters have to live and work within five minutes of their nearest fire station so they can respond swiftly to an alert and meet response times. The first pump is required to get to the scene of a fire within 11 minutes and where two pumps are needed – such as in a building fire – the second should get there within 16 minutes.
For a road traffic collision, the aim is to get a rescue pump to the scene within 13 minutes. According to Watch Commander Ashby, crews usually arrive “well within” these time frames.
He said the high number of rural brigades in Suffolk was one factor preventing people from joining up, and staying.
“It used to be easy to recruit on-call firefighters in villages years ago because most people worked in their village but that’s not the case anymore. Work has taken them further afield,” Watch Commander Ashby said.
“If they live or work too far away, then it takes too long to get to the station.”
Another big factor is that most people don’t realise they can be an on-call firefighter and have another full-time job.
He added: “It’s quite a commitment and it does impact on home/work/life balance.
“The on-call contract is for 120 hours per week where firefighters must carry an alerter and be able to respond immediately. That’s quite a lot out of a working week.
“But people do get a great deal of fulfilment out of it because they become such a valuable part of their community.”
Conrad Burgess, SFRS deputy district manager for the west of the county, said TV shows in the 90s such as London’s Burning had created a false image of modern day on-call firefighting. “People don’t realise it’s a part time role and they still think that behind every fire station door there’s a crew of firefighters playing snooker – that’s definitely not the case,” Station Commander Burgess said.
“Long gone are the days when fire stations had snooker tables and bars – you’d be hard pushed to find one in Suffolk where firefighters are sitting around waiting for a shout. There are only 209 full timers in the county and many of them are also on call firefighters. The rest are doing other jobs.”
On call firefighters come from all walks of life. There is no upper age limit but applicants must be over 18. They have to be physically fit, and retain a good level of fitness. In addition, prospective firefighters need Level 2 maths and English; they must have a head for heights and can’t be claustrophobic.
Vacancies are listed online and once a form has been submitted, applicants undergo physical and written tests and have a medical examination. After that, they attend a two week training course at Wattisham. If successful, they join a local crew and complete the development part of their training ‘on the job’ over a three-year period. This includes being trained to wear breathing apparatus and HGV training. Some progress through the ranks to become a crew or watch commander.
After three years, on call firefighters get paid a £3,000 retaining fee and carry an alerter.
They receive payment every time they are called out – and they get holiday pay.
James Hillman, 50, from Sudbury, who has been an on-call firefighter for 22 years, summed up the appeal: “I think we are in a fortunate position where we can help people. Most firefighters join for that reason and only find out afterwards that you get paid for it. I have never heard anyone ask how much – no-one here is motivated by the money.”
Not just jobs for the boys
Being of slight build, female and just 23 years old, trainee quantity surveyor Becky Howard is not your stereotypical firefighter. But she has “enjoyed every minute” of the role since joining her local crew in Long Melford last year.
She said: “Some people are quite surprised when I tell them I’m a firefighter but there are more and more women joining up nowadays and we have to undergo all of the same tests and training as the men.
“When the alert goes, there’s an adrenalin rush and the buzz is a massive appeal. But I also really get a lot of satisfaction from the fact that we are helping the local community.”
Becky, who says she doesn’t really think about the possible dangers of the job, is one of only 23 female on-call firefighters in Suffolk and around 35 altogether, including full-timers.
She fits the job in between studying at university to be a quantity surveyor and working at her dad’s business in Long Melford, Maple Building Services.
Firefighting is still a predominantly male profession but that is something SFRS is actively trying to change.
Belinda Moroney, 44, was the first woman at Sudbury Fire Station and has been doing the job for 13 years. In the early days as a single mum, she found it difficult to get the work/life balance right. She said: “To be an on call firefighter, you definitely need a good family network around you, but that’s also true for men.
“The requirements for entry to on-call firefighting are exactly the same for men and women. It doesn’t matter what gender you are – we all have our strengths and weaknesses and we all feed into each other as a team.”
Call to local employers to support on-call fire fighters.
One of the challenges faced by recruitment officers is finding understanding employers who are happy to release on-call firefighters at a moment’s notice.
Two of the Sudbury crew, James Hillman, 50, and Stewart Collins, 42, both have ‘day jobs’ at Nestle Purina pet food factory based on Chilton industrial estate.
Mr Hilman, who was once responded to an alert while his wife was in labour, said: “On call firefighting is something I’d always wanted to do and from day one, Purina have always been supportive of it. They make it possible for us to drop what we are doing and go as soon as we receive an alert.”
Mr Collins, who is also a school liaison for the brigade teaching youngsters about fire safety, said: “During the recent fire, businesses around here were really supportive and understood the importance of letting us go.
“We get busy periods throughout the year and it is a commitment but we are lucky to have understanding partners and employers.”
Kevin Shrimpton, factory manager at Nestle Purina, said: “The vital, life-saving service on call firefighters such as Jim and Stewart provide to their local communities is something we are delighted to be able to support.
“As a business we have our own debt of gratitude to local firefighting services, having suffered a fire at the factory this year, so we know first-hand just how important the service Jim and Stewart provide is to the local community. We are very proud of them both.”
What is your firefighter doing when they’re not fighting fires?
Among the 30+ people who make up the crews at Sudbury and Long Melford fire stations, you will find a wide variety of professions. Contrary to the popular belief that they are all “sitting around waiting for an alert”, they all have other jobs.
For instance, during the day Jamie Lockyer, 30, works as a baker in Sainsbury’s while Gregg Andersen, 26, can be found delivering the post for Royal Mail before heading off to a third job at the Co-operative.
Mr Andersen said: “It’s a very different job to being a postman but it’s great because I get to do and learn things in the fire service that I would never do in my other roles. As long as the mail gets delivered safely, Royal Mail are okay with it.”
Meanwhile Scott Powell, 34, from Long Melford works for car body repair firm Balgours as a workshop manager.
He has been an on-call firefighter for 11 years and believes the experience he has gained in the fire service has helped him to progress at work.
He said: “My employers also get the benefit. I have gained an HGV licence through the fire service that I can use at work and I am also their fire warden. Running the two roles alongside each other has really worked well for me because I have gained so many transferable skills.”
• To find out more, call 01473 260588 or go to www.suffolkjobsdirect.org for an application form.