It was with mixed emotions that I took up the role of leading the service community safety department.
There was the initial excitement of a new challenge, however, there was also trepidation due to my lack of skills, knowledge and experience in youth engagement.
Fortunately, I had a fantastic team, from a diverse range of backgrounds, who had the necessary skills to both develop and deliver a range of extremely effective youth engagement programmes.
The team consisted of a child psychologist, a teacher, a researcher, a fire investigator, a police officer and firefighters.
Initially programmes were aimed at school age children. The ‘Fireworks’ programme was a 12-week day release course for 14-16 year olds, with an aim to encourage young people to engage with mainstream education.
The success of this programme led to the development of the ‘Fired Up’ programme, which was designed for 16-25 year olds not in education, employment or training.
Both programmes included basic firefighting training, designed to develop basic life and employability skills such as; teamwork, communications, health and safety and punctuality.
These sessions were punctuated with wider life skills development such as; healthy eating, finance management, drug and alcohol misuse, community awareness and job seeking skills.
Throughout each programme the incentive for students to engage with all sessions was the knowledge that most days would involve practicing firefighting skills, which they loved.
How the programme truly changes lives…
The success of these programmes has been fantastic, with measurable improvements such as; improved school attendance, increased qualifications and full employment.
However, for me, the most important successes are more difficult to measure.
One Monday morning I received a phone call from a young man’s social worker, informing me that had he not been coming to the ‘Fired Up’ course that morning he would have committed suicide over the weekend.
Another student was successful in gaining a part-time job within the community safety department and now leads the delivery team.
Every course culminates in a graduation ceremony, where the students display the firefighting skills they have developed to their families and friends.
The reaction of the guests when seeing their young people demonstrate their achievements is truly amazing.
For many students it is the first time they have received positive recognition for many years.
Not only do they leave with improved skills and qualifications, but more importantly they have direction, hope and self-belief.
The Rewards of the Programme
The work for the delivery staff is very hard and at times extremely challenging; however it can also be very rewarding.
It can be extremely frustrating when a student leaves the programme for no reason that is logical to us, especially if we have observed them doing well previously.
However, there are some really heart-warming stories. I well remember one instructor, a burly six foot plus firefighter with over 20 years service recounting a story to me.
It was graduation day for a group of students and he was walking across the yard with one of them. He asked the student if he was looking forward to the graduation ceremony. The student replied “I just want my mam and dad to be proud of me for the first time”. The instructor was brought to tears by this, as it really brought home to him the enormity of the impact we were having on people’s lives.
At the graduation ceremonies I usually observed parents, grandparents and other invited guests swelling with pride at the achievement of their young people. Afterwards they often come and talk with me and other members of staff, thanking us for giving the young person an opportunity.
My response to this is that there are lots of opportunities in life and that their young person has demonstrated what they are capable of achieving. I encourage the parents to support them to find further opportunities, allowing them to continue to achieve things.
The more they achieve, the more they will want to achieve, which will lead to them seeking further opportunities on their own.
Reflecting back on a 30 year career in the fire service, I recognise that I have made more of a positive impact on people’s lives and indeed saved more lives whilst working on youth engagement programmes than in any other role I have undertaken.
I also believe that the fire service could become even more effective at delivering such programmes if we were able to attract more staff with the skills and experience necessary for working with young people.