Shropshire Star

Your on-call fire crew needs you

In a small town centre shop, Sean Nicholas is selling a table and chairs. A few doors down, his wife Ann is nursing rescued owls.


In a small town centre shop, Sean Nicholas is selling a table and chairs. A few doors down, his wife Ann is nursing rescued owls.

So this is what everyday superheroes, aka retained firefighters, look like – ordinary people going about their ordinary lives.

Until, that is, one of their pagers goes off and they swing into action in a rather more extraordinary way.

"I've spent my whole adult life with a pager in my pocket," says 38-year-old Sean who has been a retained, on-call firefighter for 17 years.

"One minute we might be doing this and the next you are at a house fire or a road traffic collision and having to cut the roof off a car.

"Anna and I were at the Talbot Inn restaurant down the road and we got called out, and had to go back later to pay the bill!" adds Sean, who is the crew manager at Much Wenlock Fire Station.

Sean and Anna, who both work for Cuan House Wildlife Rescue in Wenlock, met as a result of being retained firefighters, and Anna, 28, is also a full-time firefighter at Shrewsbury.

Sean began his firefighting at Ludlow before moving up to Much Wenlock, and he says different towns and villages can be quite different in the types of call-outs crews attend.

Horse and animal rescues are more common in Wenlock, for example, than Ludlow, where the chimney fires and automated fire alarms are more likely.

"If an elderly horse is down we have to go and get them back up again. Or it could be a cat up a tree or a road accident – it's a mixed bag."

Sean and Anna reflect on recent emergencies: a house fire in Coalport, a road accident on the A418, floods. But crews never quite know when they will have to drop everything and head to the station.

"We got called out three times one Saturday recently, then nothing for a week," says Sean.

"The pager might go off in five seconds, then again it might not."

Although they run the vast majority of smaller fire stations in Shropshire, there is currently a shortage retained firefighters.

The county brigade desperately needs more, largely because older crew members are retiring and youth needs to take its place.

The need for on-call fighters, people who must live five minutes from the fire station and are able to instantly drop their everyday lives in order to swing into action, is vital in a rural county such as Shropshire, where the population is often dispersed and remote and where response times would be compromised were emergency cover not 'local'.

The aim is to have a fire appliance on the scene of an incident in within 15 minutes of a call – a target that would prove impossible if crews of ordinary people were not on standby in county villages and towns.

There are 23 fire stations in Shropshire, and retained firefighters run 22 of them - retained and whole time work together at Shrewsbury, Wellington and Tweedale in Telford.

Chief Fire Officer Paul Raymond says: "Families across Shropshire rely on our on-call firefighters to protect them from fires and road traffic accidents.

"To continue to do this we need men and women to give something back to their communities by signing up as on-call fire-fighters.

"Each year about 12 of our on call fire-fighters retire and many more move out of the area for work so we need as many people as possible to join us.

"The 'part-time' career offers excellent training and a chance to be part of a close knit team in your local town or village and the extra money we pay for being on call, training nights and emergency calls, certainly helps in these difficult financial times."

Retained firefighters can be any age so long as they are physically fit and live within five minutes of a fire station. And that is one constraint – and thus a problem in recruitment – that prospective firefighters must live very near the station.

"Retained firefighters are very important in rural areas such as Shropshire," says Anna. "We are quite short of staff at Wenlock – there are nine of us on call but we always struggle for people here.

"If you go off duty you could be putting a trip off because you need a minimum of three people on the appliance." And depending upon the nature of the emergency in hand, more crew members may be required.

Retained firefighters are paid between £5,000 and £10,000 a year for the role, but this cannot be the only reason to do a job which, at times, is undeniably dangerous.

Sean explains that being a firefighter has been his dream since he was a lad.

He says: "I love the job. You are part of a fantastic team who are thoroughly professional, and it's a really important role in the community.

"There is lot of trust in your fellow colleagues and in the equipment and training that we do."

Adds Anna: "Shropshire is one of the smallest brigades in the country but it is one of the best-performing.

"We are here for our community. When people call 999 and ask for a fire crew they know they you are not very far away. That is fantastically rewarding."

Case study 1: Steve Moorhouse

Contributing to saving someone's life is "quite a buzz", says the man in charge of Ellesmere Fire Station.

During the day Steve Moorhouse, 49, is an operations manager at a leading Shropshire company. Responsible for ensuring that Lloyds Animal

Feeds is working smoothly, Steve is also the Watch Manager at the town's fire station.

Many companies, like his, support Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service by allowing firefighters to leave work 'at the drop of a hat' when an emergency call comes through.

Steve says: "It is very satisfying to go to a serious incident where you and your team are responsible for ensuring a successful outcome whether it is rescuing someone from a house fire or cutting them out of a crashed car to get them to hospital in time."

Being a highly trained firefighter means you are able to "apply what you have learned" and deal with emergency incidents, adds Steve.

"We go into situations where most sensible people would be running away from. But that is what we are trained to do."

Today's modern firefighter is also responsible for educating people to prevent fires before they begin, stresses Steve.

We have to be proactive in fire prevention rather than reactive. But we are ready to go wherever and whenever we are needed."

The reputation and standing of firefighters is high in their local community, who know and respect them, Steve adds.

Case study 2: The Benbow brothers

A farming family from Hodnet are a big part of the fire and rescue service in the area with three brothers all "on call" firefighters at the village fire station.

Phil and Tom Benbow, aged 34 and 38, with younger brother Jonathan, 23, all live at Back Farm, Hodnet, a stone's throw from Hodnet Fire Station.

"If we are milking cows when the alarm call goes then we simply drop everything and answer the call," says Phil who works on the farm with his brother Tom, while their younger brother works for a shed company nearby.

But the farm work carries on smoothly as their wives quickly step in to continue the milking.

"It's a family tradition. We all love it. My two boys are seven and five and they seem interested for the future," adds Phil, who with his brothers, is part of a 13-strong on-call firefighting force at Hodnet.

"We have some busy main roads with heavy traffic and there are a number of road crashes which we are often called out to attend as well as being prepared for any fires which break out in the area."

"Being an on call firefighter gives you confidence in life, you are very well trained and it means that you are helping people when they need it. We all love it," added Phil, who with his first aid training helped a passer-by who collapsed in Market Drayton recently.

For more information about becoming a retained firefighter, call Shropshire Fire and Rescue on 01743 260200 or log onto the website

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