West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service has been working with dementia day centre, The Chestnuts, on an innovative new project to increase recognition and understanding of the condition among its staff.

WSFRS’s Community Fire Safety Officers (CFSOs) have spent specially organised days at the centre to shadow the care team, interact with the customers and learn more about the centre’s operation and offering.

As cases of dementia increase it becomes ever more important for WSFRS staff to be able to recognise the wide-ranging symptoms, to deal with potentially adverse behaviour and to feel confident in communicating with those living with the condition.

WSFRS’s CFSOs work across the county to visit vulnerable residents in their homes to offer fire safety advice and guidance, fit smoke alarms and answer any questions or queries regarding safety in the home.

Jackie Boyle, Community Fire Safety Manager, who is leading this project, said: “Our CFSOs are now encountering dementia on an almost daily basis so this project is all about getting to know each other – it’s allowing The Chestnuts to gain more of an understanding of our prevention work, while our team members are able to learn from the wonderful staff at the centre which will help them each day in the situations they may face.”

Teri Humphrey, Assistant Manager at The Chestnuts, added: “The way dementia manifests differs from person to person; no two people have the same symptoms. The chance for the fire service’s safety officers to experience dementia in a real-life setting will enable them to firstly recognise the condition, but to also gain a better understanding of how to communicate with somebody who is living with the disease.”

During the days spent at the centre, the safety officers have learned how to approach people with dementia, how the emotional side of the condition can impact every element of a home safety visit, and how to ensure a person gets the most out of their visit.

This project also brings to the forefront the importance of helping and supporting carers of those with dementia. From learning to spot the warning signs of somebody who is struggling to cope, to identifying someone who may need extra support from the fire service or other agencies.

Mark Holland, Community Fire Safety Officer, found the experience invaluable: “We want to ensure that our safety advice resonates with everyone that we visit and this experience has given me a much better insight into how to adapt our communication style when speaking to someone with dementia, how to put them at ease, and how to ensure we leave them in a good frame of mind. We are very grateful to The Chestnuts for allowing us the opportunity to spend time with them and we look forward to working with them further in the future.”

The Chestnuts Day Centre, run by West Sussex County Council, offers respite care for those living with dementia. Located in central Bognor Regis, the centre provides a safe and welcoming environment for people with the condition to socialise and interact with their peers. Activities such as arts and crafts, social cooking, gardening and cognitive stimulation are enjoyed under the supervision of a dedicated team of specially-trained support staff, allowing carers an essential break from their everyday responsibilities.

West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service is at the heart of West Sussex County Council's Communities and Public Protection Directorate, working to support communities to become safer, stronger and more resilient through a combination of prevention, protection and response activities.