Fighting fires is only half the battle, reports FIRE digital editor Richard Hook:

Between April 2012 and March 2013, UK fire and rescue services responded to 154,000 fires. The average response time for these incidents was 7.4 minutes, with the number of fire fatalities falling by 35% and average area of dwelling damaged down by 28% compared to the previous year.

However, the official government statistics don’t measure the impact of a fire after the blaze has been put out – and that’s where the British Red Cross fire and emergency support service comes in.  The Red Cross responds to fires as well as other kinds of emergencies – including floods, road traffic incidents and even farm accidents – following call-outs from fire and rescue services.

In 2012, Red Cross fire and emergency support was called out 2,354 times, supporting over 6,800 people affected by a serious incident or emergency. Alongside providing essential shelter, clothing, food and water, the service offers help with practical necessities such as securing temporary accommodation and contacting insurance companies.

Case Study 1: Fire and emergency support in action
Father of four Justin Lush was fast asleep at his Devon home when he was woken by the sound of a smoke alarm. He recalled: “I went downstairs to look, and saw flames coming out of the cooker and touching the ceiling.

“Once we were all out, I called the fire brigade and shouted to the neighbours to get out of bed as well. By that time, people were coming onto the street and the house was really going.”

As their home blazed, the family sought refuge at a neighbour’s house – until paramedics took Justin and two of his children to hospital with smoke inhalation.

Fortunately, grandfather Dave Bendle, the father of Justin’s wife, Claire, soon appeared to look after the other two children – and a British Red Cross fire and emergency support team were right behind him.  Dave said: “The volunteers were brilliant. We were in a neighbour’s house we didn’t really know, everything was upside down and we all had that horrible gut feeling that things could have been much worse, so I think they did a smashing job. We got a lot of much-needed support.”

As soon as mum Claire was alerted to the crisis, she rushed home to rejoin the family – and Malcolm, the Red Cross volunteer was still on hand to advise her on the next steps, including getting her insurance claim started.  Claire added: “We were so lucky because the Red Cross helped us so much and the fire service was brilliant. If anyone reads our story and thinks they might be able to help families in a similar position in future, I hope they’ll consider volunteering with the Red Cross – because we found their support invaluable.”

Emergency planning officer Laura Bowen explains: “We’re there to provide a range of practical and emotional support in an emergency – our specially adapted vehicle provides immediate temporary shelter in the immediate aftermath of an incident. Those affected can access a change of clothes, toiletries, bathroom facilities, children’s soft toys and games, and light refreshments including hot drinks and snacks. Most important however is the emotional support that our trained volunteers provide, helping an individual or family to process the events that have suddenly occurred.”

“Our goal is to get all our beneficiaries not just through the immediate aftermath when most people are still in shock, but also with identifying practical steps to take, such as contacting insurance companies or sourcing replacement medication. The fire and emergency support team will also signpost those affected to other supporting agencies in the local area. In some cases they may also identify vulnerable individuals who will need more on-going support.”

Any incident could be a crisis
The Red Cross fire and emergency support service works closely with local fire and rescue services across the UK and will arrive at the scene of the incident within 90 minutes of call-out. However not all fire personnel are fully aware of the range of support that can be provided through this service and this is something that the Red Cross would like to promote further. As Laura suggests “a call that may take the fire service 30 minutes to deal with may not appear to require further support, but for the individual, this could be a significant, shocking incident. They may have lost items of great sentimental value or just be shaken by the events that have occurred so suddenly. Even a small fire could trigger a major trauma for someone, where our service would be a big help.”

Scale may differ but response remains key
While the British Red Cross is well known for its work overseas – including the huge aid effort following the recent Philippines typhoon – many people still aren’t familiar with the organisation’s role closer to home. (That’s why the Red Cross are happy to appear at all fire service open days, to raise the profile of the service.)

However as Johanna Phillips, deputy head of emergency planning and response explains, our response is not dissimilar. “Major disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan may involve lots of Red Cross national societies and present huge logistical challenges, but the ethos behind the response is fundamentally the same as with our work here in the UK.

Regardless of the nature and scale of an emergency, for us it’s all about meeting the needs of beneficiaries and trying to make a difference in distressing times – and those ground rules apply whether we’re in a disaster zone or a burnt-out home in Surrey. For the people we help, our role in the UK is every bit as important as our international work.”

Case Study 2: Inspired to fundraise
Arthur was at home in his Yorkshire flat when his faulty kitchen freezer went up in flames. Luckily, the fire service arrived quickly, and Arthur and his neighbours escaped unharmed.

However, Arthur’s daughter Judith – the usual contact in an emergency – was on holiday at the time and couldn’t be found. This left the pensioner in limbo until the fire service called the Red Cross fire and emergency support service. Since Arthur’s kitchen had suffered some damage from the smoke and flames, Red Cross volunteers helped guide him through his insurance claim. They also regularly checked up on the pensioner in the days afterwards to make sure everything was going smoothly. The volunteers even organised a meals-on-wheels service, so he’d have one less thing to worry about.

When Judith returned from her holiday and found out what had happened, she was so relieved that the Red Cross had been there for her dad. She said: “The Red Cross have been incredibly helpful. I was completely unaware of this particular service but am so impressed by it. My daughter Esther was so pleased with how the Red Cross had helped her grandfather she decided to sell some homemade lemonade to raise money for them."

Early and longer-term intervention
With services available across the UK, the Red Cross fire and emergency support service is well-placed to offer support to all when it is needed most.

The Red Cross can help at any incident and have dealt with farm accidents, distraction burglaries, floods, power outages and road collisions. Ultimately, it’s about having the capability through be-spoke vehicles with the provisions on hand, and the practical and emotional support skills that their volunteers bring. It’s about being there to provide that all-round level of support when it is needed.

For more information and to find out how your service can work more closely with fire and emergency support, please visit: or email us at ep&