Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service have commended a "tireless campaigner" for Gypsy rights in their efforts to protect communities from fire. The fire and rescue service reports.

Devon and Somerset FRS is working closely with gypsies, travellers and showman communities, ensuring they receive Home Fire Safety Visits (HFSVs) and fire education tailored to their particular needs. Within Devon and Somerset there are several Roma, Gypsy and Traveller sites and DSFRS actively fit smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors for the protection and safety of these communities. Working closely over the years within the travelling communities, we have built up contacts within the communities that trust our advice. One such contact is Maggie Smith Bendell, a Romany Gypsy and a tireless campaigner for Gypsy rights.

Maggie was born in the 1940s on the edge of a pea field near Bridgwater in Somerset and is the second of eight children. She feels very privileged to have lived a traditional Romany Gypsy way of life and does not want the old culture and traditions of Romany life to die out as she is immensely proud of her heritage. Maggie still thinks of Romany as her first language and English as her second, although in everyday speech she uses a mix of both.

She believes it was her early life that made her what she is today, an "activist for my race of Gypsy people". She runs an advisory service for Gypsies and Travellers based in the south west of England and campaigns tirelessly for the rights of Gypsies to live peacefully in accordance with their culture.

Maggie said: "Today I help Gypsy families to secure private land to live on and advise legislation on planning issues. It's one of the only ways we can keep our culture going is - by having private sites to live on. The families can then travel away from that site to do seasonal work or whatever and have a base to return to. It's important for us to have these sites as it's practically illegal now to stop on the sides of roads and without a permanent address and a post code there is no access for health care or education as such. "

Over the years Maggie has got to know many people that work for DSFRS she says: "The work the fire service does is above and beyond what we ever expected they would do. They are out reaching vulnerable people that are in need of fire safety advice.

"The fire service now understands the risk to the loss of life we face living in trailers and caravans and they do a great job, and we're all grateful for what they are doing. They are saving lives, they might not know it but they are saving lives."

Maggie went on to explain that the Romany community have particularly benefited from DSFRS advice on the large 40-50ft caravans - the touring caravans are small enough to only need a smoke alarm and a carbon monoxide detector positioned in a central area of the vehicle - but in the larger vehicles the correct placement can make a big difference.

"The earliest warning the better as in the bigger caravans what often happens is the adults will sleep at one end and the children or elderly at the other. Everyone knows how fast a fire spreads and a caravan burns so quickly, correct placement of the alarms gives the adults extra time to alert the vulnerable children or elderly people and get them out."

Mike Toop said: "For some time I have been working with various sections of the Gypsy and Traveller communities within my area, some being based locally and others passing through; the main factor common within all of the residents which I have talked to is that most know of someone who has been effected either by fire or carbon monoxide, many with fatal consequences.

"Recently I have been working with Maggie on The Travellers Times Stand at Priddy Fair and met many Romany Gypsies from all over the south of England, where we were promoting our Fire Safety Campaign amongst their community; it soon became apparent that she is so well known and highly respected within her group that individuals were prepared to come and talk with us about fire safety matters in their living accommodation."

Maggie is a vital contact to the Romany Gypsy community enabling DSFRS to deliver vital fire safety messages face to face. This relationship confirms the advantage of working in partnership with all sectors of the community, in this case literally opening doors and creating the opportunity to engage with a sometimes hard to reach group.

Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two - A Gypsy Family's Hard Times and Happy Times on the Road in the 1950s by Maggie Smith-Bendell is published by Abacus ISBN 978-0-349-12361-5.


Posted December 13th.