Magazine article Public Finance

No Fire Next Time

Magazine article Public Finance

No Fire Next Time

Article excerpt

The car crime meeting got off to a shaky start when a dazed-looking youth asked the man leading it if he was a 'plod'. Ken Hunter replied that he wasn't a police officer, and that he wasn't talking about car crime because it was against the law or even because it was wrong. He was a firefighter, and more concerned with the deaths that were the direct or indirect result of car crimes.

That got the attention of his audience - a group of young offenders with heroin problems - and Hunter held it for the rest of the 45-minute session. Using down-to-earth language and without ever being patronising, he got the group to explore their own beliefs about car crime and to compare these with the harsh realities that victims experience. All four members of the group took part in what quickly turned into a lively discussion.

Discussing car crime with drug users might seem worlds away from what firefighters usually do. But Hunter, who has just been named the Outstanding Public Servant of the Year, has been pushing back the boundaries of his job for the past decade.

It all started in June 1995 when the community fire safety department of the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service received a call from a woman whose sevenyear-old son had started playing with fire. The single mother was distraught. She had already tried to get help from the police and other agencies and come up against a brick wall. The fire service, too, was not equipped to do much for parents in her position.

'At that time there was nothing in place to deal with young kids who were messing with fire,' says Hunter, who took the call. 'The normal way would be to take the child down to the local fire station, and get the biggest, ugliest, meanest looking fireman to give the kid the fright of his life.'

Hunter and his colleagues realised that without understanding why such a young child was lighting fires, giving him a fright was unlikely to do much good. But Hunter, a single parent himself at the time, was determined to help, and arranged to visit the woman and talk to her son.

Casting around for a way of approaching this task, he decided to copy a few pages from Frances the Firefly, a picture book published by the government to teach fire safety in schools. The idea was to tell the child the story of Frances and show him the accompanying video, but leave the drawings for him to colour in later, which would give his mother a chance to retell the fire safety story.

'So we did that and monitored the child for quite a while. After three months, when the mother was happy with the child, we issued him with a certificate,' Hunter recalls.

The approach he used with that little boy formed the basis of one of the first child fire awareness programmes in the country, which is now the model used by many other fire brigades. Hunter stresses that he couldn't have got the programme off the ground, let alone develop it further, without the support of other members of the community fire safety team, especially his then line manager, Richard Brabbs, who now heads the brigades arson task force.

But there can be no doubting Hunter's own pioneering contribution to fire safety education, which has now been recognised in the form of two Public Servants of the Year Awards. The ground-breaking education programmes he developed and the work he does with children and young offenders have earned him the Making a Difference to People - social inclusion award. It also made him the judges' choice for the top award: Outstanding Public Servant of the Year.

Explaining the judges' thinking, Roger Singleton, chief executive of Barnardo's children's charity and a member of the judging panel, says: 'Ken's work in pioneering an education programme for children and young people who start fires has been imaginative, creative and effective. He developed the initiative personally and his ideas have now been adopted by many fire brigades.'

There was nothing in Hunter's early life to suggest that he would up end up getting this sort of praise. …

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