More retained fire fighters needed in Norfolk

Mark Wilson, Retained Watch Manager for Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service at Attleborough. Photograph

Mark Wilson, Retained Watch Manager for Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service at Attleborough. Photograph Simon Parker - Credit: Archant

The number of retained firefighters in Norfolk is at its lowest level for a decade.

But while the county's fire service is still hitting its response time targets, officials are urging local people to check out what it takes to be one of its dedicated crew members.

A total of 22 stations, from Acle and Attleborough to Wells and West Walton, are looking for new recruits.

As a large rural county, Norfolk relies heavily on the retained crews to run 35 of its 42 stations while also providing additional cover at four of its full-time bases.

At the beginning of last month, there were 479 retained firefighters in Norfolk – meaning there are just over 50 vacancies.

It is the lowest number of retained crew members since the beginning of the 2003/4 financial year when there were 465.

A total of 50 retained firefighters left last year for a variety of reasons, from retirement to changes in their personal circumstances. Just 35 were recruited.

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Karen Palframan, brigade manager, said: 'We rely a lot on our retained crews to provide coverage across the county. We ask a lot of them and we need people who live and work within five minutes of their station. That limits the people you can draw from.

'Generally speaking, we do find it can be a struggle.

'The other issue is that people's working patterns have changed. Where they live and where they work isn't often the same place. We suffer from people having to leave their communities to go to work.'

Norfolk Fire Service aims to have a local crew available an average of 90pc of the time.

It missed that target for 2012/13 – but only just (87.7pc), thanks to the dedication and management of the existing crews.

The service is still meeting its response time targets, with crews answering calls to fires within 10 minutes and crashes on the roads in 13 minutes in excess of 80pc of the time.

Mrs Palframan said the service was used to dealing with a high turnover of retained staff and taking on new crew was a well-known difficulty.

But she reassured people it was not affecting its ability to answer call-outs.

'We are doing this all the time,' she said. 'We have a lot of frontline resources – 53 fire engines – and they are available to us a considerable amount of the time. Our whole-time fire engines are very rarely off the run and our retained crews are available the vast majority of the time.'

The brigade manager said vacancy numbers were particularly high at the moment but those numbers had been disproportionately affected by the loss of half a dozen retained fire-fighters at both Diss and Wymondham stations over the past year.

'That's unusual,' she said.

Of the county's 39 retained crews, six operate two pumps each while the rest have a single fire engine. Crews with a single pump tend to be made up of about 12 members which is usually enough to ensure four or five people are available whenever there is a shout.

Retained crews have to undergo both physical and written tests to join the service. Mrs Palframan said recruits had to be of a very high standard because they were expected to do the same job as their full-time equivalents.

Mark Wilson, a retained watch manager at Attleborough and a full- time retained support officer for Norfolk Fire Service, said: 'It's challenging. You now have to go through a selection weekend at Bowthorpe where you have to go through a series of tests – equipment carry, a ladder lift, dexterity tests, and a breathing apparatus test.

'We are now getting ourselves involved in a lot more diverse situations that we need to respond to. We're looking for a higher standard of firefighter because the job demands that.'