Burning desire to succeed

When picturing a firefighter, the stereotypical image is of a big burly man jumping from a fire engine and heading into a blazing building armed with a hose. But would many people associate the role with someone who has in-depth knowledge of chemistry, maths and engineering?

Today, firefighters have varied and complex roles that involve not only the traditional aspects of attending fires and accidents, but also fire prevention, education, awareness and assisting with counter-terrorism activities. Still a competitive and demanding profession to enter, the fire and rescue services require candidates to demonstrate a high standard of skills, knowledge and conduct.

Following the successful launch of a BSc (Hons) Policing, the University joined forces with West Midlands Fire Service to develop a similar qualification aimed at people hoping to pursue this career. The BSc (Hons) Fire and Rescue degree launched in 2010 with a cohort of 12 students, and the second cohort of 25 has now settled into its first semester of study.

The degree combines rigorous academic elements with practical experience. The first three modules of the course are physics, chemistry and maths and the students complete the same assessments as those on engineering and forensic science degrees.

Course leader and Director of the Central Institute for the Study of Public Protection at the University, Dr Martin Wright, explains: “Half of the degree is science or engineering based and although some subjects may seem abstract at first, the students quickly understand the practical application of what they are learning.“There are a lot of misconceptions about fire and rescue - it is highly technical profession. If there is a crash involving a tanker on the motorway, the firefighters have to assess the danger from the chemicals as well as dealing with the incident. They are often called to deal with suspect devices, as well as chemical, biological and terrorism incidents. All of which demands a highly academic and committed individual and that is what the degree seeks to develop.”

The reality

From day one, the students are exposed to the realities of firefighting. During Welcome Week, they visit the West Midlands Fire Service training academy in Smethwick to take part in a day to assess if they have any phobias. This checks their reactions to heights, enclosed spaces and wearing breathing apparatus as these are essential aspects of the job.

If they sail through this tough introduction to the role, the students become community volunteers with West Midlands Fire Service throughout their three years of study. This involves taking part in fire awareness and risk assessment initiatives, such as visiting homes to provide help and advice. They also do safety talks in schools and become community volunteers at Safeside, an interactive scenario at West Midlands Fire Service headquarters in Birmingham. This interesting aspect involves taking groups of young people around the scenarios and talking them through the various risks being demonstrated.

Martin explains that this is an important element of the job, and today’s firefighters spend a lot of their time preventing fires and accidents happening in the first place. The students also complete the firefighter training programme run by West Midlands Fire Service, so they undergo the same training as real firefighters. It is hoped that in the future some students will become retained firefighters.

Commitment

Alongside all of this, the students must demonstrate the right commitment and conduct to meet the demanding nature of the profession.

“It is a very tough degree,” Dr Wright says. “Not only are we assessing their academic conduct but because of the responsibility and their role within the fire and rescue service, they are being assessed in terms of their professionalism. Their conduct, general behaviour in the University and their commitment to their degree is what we are looking for.”

This is a view reflected by second year student Jet Summan, who applied to do the degree after completing a six-week West Midlands Fire Service pre-access recruitment training course and realising this was the career for him.

“I am not from an engineering background, so I found the mechanics and hydraulics hard, but it is brilliant. I’m looking forward to starting the physical training at the Academy in January,” he says.

Jet’s dream is to work for West Midlands Fire Service after he graduates, but he has also applied to London Fire Brigade which was advertising 150 posts and received 8,000 applications, indicating the competitive nature of the career.

“I’m happy to start at the bottom and get my foot in the door and work my way up, and hopefully the degree will provide me with that stepping stone and the knowledge. My advice to anyone considering the degree is to have an open mind and be prepared to work hard.”

Next steps

The University has forged an exciting relationship with the Institution of Fire Engineers, which has now accredited the degree. Wolverhampton students are encouraged to become student members of the IFE when they join the University and to apply for full Membership status when they graduate. The accreditation enables graduates to become members of the IFE without taking further professional examinations.

The next development for all the services degrees offered by the University is to bring the students together for modules around leadership, command and emergency planning. As well as the Policing and Fire and Rescue students, this will involve students on the three BSc (Hons) Armed Forces degrees, which launched this academic year.

“The rationale is that they will gain experience of other services roles within emergencies as well as building up long term professional relationships across the services,” Dr Martin Wright adds.

Other developments in the pipeline include an MSc in Fire and Rescue Services, which could start in October 2013. Dr Wright is currently consulting with regional fire and rescue services, who are all partners with the University through a Memorandum of Understanding, to ensure this will meet their needs. Martin is also working with the West Midlands Fire Service training academy to develop their vocational training, which will involve lifting their existing courses to higher education quality standards. Again, this will be a cross-School initiative involving various aspects of the University, from engineering with the School of Technology to fire scene investigation with the School of Applied Sciences.

The course is tough, academically rigorous and physically challenging. Perfect preparation for entering a job which offers a demanding but rewarding career path, as Dr Wright says:

“Ultimately when they graduate, our students will have spent three years as a community volunteer having learnt essential skills such as fire prevention, community safety, command and communications. As well as developing a portfolio of evidence they will be eligible to apply to become a member of the IFE, which is a recognised professional body for the fire and rescue service. They will also be a trained firefighter and have a BSc degree.

“We aim to prepare our students as much as possible for a professional career as a firefighter.”