Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of RSPH, spends the day with West Midlands Fire Service.
Speeding by the lush fields and hedgerows of middle England on a sunny late afternoon on the train from Birmingham to Euston, I have time to reflect on the advantages of going out to meet people on the front line of public services and what a difference they make to the lives of people in the community.
I was privileged to spend the day with the inspiring staff of the West Midlands Fire Service (WMFS) at the Handsworth Fire Station (or better described as a community centre).
I had been fortunate to bump into Dave Boucher, Commander of the South Birmingham Fire Service and Pete Wilson, Head of Community Safety at a Westminster Conference in May and was struck by their enthusiasm, expertise and vast community knowledge and was subsequently pleased to accept their invitation to visit the West Midlands to see for myself the role they play in improving the public’s health and wellbeing.
They had prepared a packed agenda with a range of exciting presentations highlighting a ‘new look’ fire service with prevention and health inequalities at its heart. What was especially striking is that so many of the activities of the WMFS are targeted at the most vulnerable individuals and families in the area.
As I found out in Wigan, firefighters are one of the most trusted professions, commanding respect across all age groups and in a diverse range of communities. The comprehensive access of the fire service to the public means they have a unique ability to provide critical interventions, promote health messages and refer to appropriate services.
There are over 1,300 firefighters in the West Midlands and they all play their part in preventing health problems but there is a core of 200 staff, all volunteers, who have been specifically trained as Vulnerable Persons Officers (VPO’s). I had the opportunity to hear from a number of these officers and their dedication and commitment to supporting the most vulnerable is truly humbling.
Clive Robinson, a long serving firefighter and one of the founders of the VPO programme is now leading on Dementia Awareness in the WMFS. Approximately 18% of the fires in the area are caused by people with dementia, usually due to smoking and Clive is spreading information amongst families, carers and the public. He believes that anyone diagnosed with dementia should be automatically referred to the fire service so that they can provide extra protection and support.
It was fascinating to discover that the VPO’s spend months developing relationships with individuals who many other agencies find ‘too difficult to access’. Once they have access, the gentle persistence of the VPO’s in building trust with vulnerable individuals truly differentiates the service.
Sam Burton (Woodgate Valley Fire Service) spent months gaining the confidence of an elderly woman with mental health problems who was an inveterate ‘hoarder’ to ensure that her environment gradually became safer, more hygienic and that she received the health services she needed.
This was a complex and messy (literally) case with significant barriers to providing support but Sam, along with colleagues persevered and collaborated with a range of other services. This was only one of hundreds of cases of ‘hoarders’ who were supported to prevent fires but also to improve their health and gain them access to services. Delivering fire safety checks means that the service has access to homes that other services have difficulty entering.
The WMFS is also the initiator of Serious Incidence Reviews and brings other agencies to the table to discuss complex cases and develop multi agency solutions and support.
Similarly, over the last 4 years VPO, Ian Sturmey has gained the trust and respect of Birmingham’s burgeoning homeless population. Hidden in deteriorating buildings across the city, Ian has made contact with hundreds of homeless individuals, improving their fire safety (including purloining his mother’s candle holders) as well as fire proof blankets and alarms. Winning the confidence of this notoriously isolated group has helped to keep both the individuals and the city safer.
Knowing where the homeless are distributed helps prevents fires but also signposts them to services and support. There is concern that landlords are hanging on to derelict properties due to the possibilities of making more profits as a result of the new HS2 rail line. Ian is now building a team of firefighters who will have special skills in supporting the homeless population in the West Midlands.
Area Commander, Steve Vincent notes that they can see the consequences of policy decisions very clearly on the ground with an increase in vulnerable populations and a decrease in support services. So it was not surprising to hear that the Fire service instigated and raised funds for the Aurora Programme, which provides support to the most vulnerable youth, helping them gain employment skills and crucially self confidence.
Pete Wilson has developed a cadre of 100 volunteers across the region to deliver the ‘heartstart’ education programme, support new migrants and create career opportunities.
Although fighting fires is the core activity of the fire service, it is clear that preventing fires and keeping the public safe involves improving the public’s health and wellbeing in the most fundamental way. Their role incorporates social research, community and social work, mental health liaison and homeless support as well as educating vulnerable young people and developing their employment skills.
All in all, the WMFS is in the business of creating healthier and happier communities and their role in public health is definitely underreported.
They have embraced the importance of dealing with health inequalities and Sir Michael Marmot’s work is frequently cited and acted upon. I left Birmingham with the thought that what I had heard was the tip of the iceberg. In terms of influence, effectiveness, as well as commitment (and leadership) of officers, I’m certain that the WMFS are the unsung heroes of the public health system.