Fire service needs retained crew members

By Sarah ChambersTHE fire service in Essex and Suffolk is struggling to find retained crew members as the number of people working locally continues to decline.

By Sarah Chambers

THE fire service in Essex and Suffolk is struggling to find retained crew members as the number of people working locally continues to decline.

The problem is particularly acute in rural areas such as Framlingham, which currently has seven retained crew members out of a possible 14 and at times cannot attend incidents.

Fire chiefs said it was a nationwide problem that they had suffered for a number of years and was due to a number of factors, including people working further from home and employers unable to spare their employees for fire duties.

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By contrast, there is strong competition for full-time firefighter positions – in Suffolk, about 40 people compete for every job advertised.

Suffolk divisional officer, operations, Phil Embury, said: "We struggle to find people willing to do it. The retained service makes a great call on those people who volunteer to do it."

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Retained crew can be aged 18 to 55, but must live or work within a few minutes of the fire station.

"Not many people live and work in the villages any more. It leaves us with quite a gaping hole in our cover," said Mr Embury.

He added the fire service was trying to encourage groups such as mothers with school-age children to consider becoming retained firefighters.

Other brigades, such as in South Wales, at looking at different schemes, such paying more and limiting hours.

"It's something that we'll have to consider, but obviously we have got to look at the finance as well – it's significantly more expensive. We would not preclude anything at this time," said Mr Embury.

The majority of Suffolk's fire stations are part-time, with only seven of the 35 manned by full-time crew. There were times when certain stations are not available and daytime cover is a particular problem.

"It has been getting worse progressively for the last 15 years, I would suggest. People's expectation of life is different now as well," said Mr Embury.

Retained vacancies remain unfilled. Of a possible 426 full-cover retained posts in Suffolk, there are 412 retained crew members, some of whom give part-time cover.

Assistant Divisional Officer Gary Clark, who covers the brigade's headquarters, Framlingham and Woodbridge areas, said: "We are actively trying to get recruits in, but it's not always that easy.

"We have lost probably five in the last year or so. There are times during the day when we can't crew the appliance."

Essex fire service divisional officer, Dave Blackett, the community commander for Colchester and Tendring, said it also had "a significant problem" recruiting retained officers in rural areas, which were made worse by the property market boom.

"We have similar problems in respect of the small, rural communities where there is a fire station have suffered over a period of time with the change in the economy," he added.

"Where there is employment, the fat has been stripped away from the bone and the people employed are normally critical to the organisation."

It was attempting to address the problem by more focused recruitment drives, including trying to attract more women into the service.

"A lot of it is in reality a change in the economic factors. People move to where they want to live which is not necessarily where they want to work," said Mr Blackett.

He felt Essex had a "more significant" problem than Suffolk because of the cost of housing.

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