Dousing the flames

Alison Miller reports on how the winner of the
Community Care Awards 2001 young offenders category works
with the fire service to give young offenders a chance to rebuild
their lives.

Disaffected young people setting fire to
stolen cars, burning rubbish, property and buildings, and making
hoax calls, take a heavy toll on the resources of the fire service
and the communities where these events take place.

For the young people involved, it often
signals the start of a career in crime. Finding a way to get the
young people to reassess their behaviour isn’t easy, but the
Phoenix project – the Community Care Awards 2001 winner in
the young offenders category – has been extremely successful in
cutting offending rates.

The project is a joint initiative between
Sunderland Youth Offending Service and Tyne and Wear Fire Brigade
and offers young people the chance to attend an intensive work
experience course with the fire service. Its target group is young
people – mostly male – between the ages of 10 and 17 who are
already offending or at risk of offending.

Vicky Thomas is educational and referral
specialist with the Sunderland Youth Offending Service, and
referral co-ordinator with the project. “Most young people we work
with have set fires in some way and pose a community fire safety
risk whether they are making hoax calls or actually setting fires,”
she says.

The ethos of the project is to stress the
positives of working within a disciplined service. “Not only is it
a disciplined uniformed service,” Thomas says, “but there is a
reason for the discipline – young people who have been very
resistant to discipline can see the reason behind it. The project
tries to make them understand that hoax calls can cost lives and
that the consequences of what they may perceive to be trivial
offences can be very severe,” she adds.

Referrals come from a wide range of agencies
including youth offending teams, educational social workers and the
local authority, and attendance is voluntary.

The young people are offered a seven-day
course within the fire service running over three weeks. It begins
with an induction day that gives everyone a chance to meet each
other and for the officers to explain how the course works.

The second day is a community reparation day
with the Arson Task Force where the fire fighters, the young people
and Thomas clean up a part of the neighbourhood that has been
blighted by fire-setting. “We all get involved because we strongly
believe we shouldn’t ask them to do anything we wouldn’t do
ourselves. We take photographs before and after, and the young
people get an amazing sense of achievement,” Thomas says. “Many of
these kids are used to being told that they are completely useless,
and the fire service is very good at recognising the positive
things about them.”

Next is a five-day course where they work
9am-4pm with the fire service, and here they get a real flavour of
what life in the brigade is like. They kick off with some
team-building skills and move on to training exercises that include
learning how to use breathing apparatus and going into a smoke
house to rescue a body; learning how to handle casualties safely;
rope skills; first aid; half a day on the aerial platform ladder,
and half a day at the sewers complex.

At the end of the course there is a ceremony
to which the young people can invite family members. Here, they are
presented with their own portfolio with a record of everything they
have achieved.

The project’s statistics are impressive. It
has worked with nearly 100 young people with an 81 per cent
attendance rate. Forty-four per cent of those who completed the
course have not offended since, and 33 per cent have reduced their
offending behaviour.

They are also very proud of their mentoring
scheme that involves fire fighters offering to mentor young people
who have completed the course. The project intends to use the
Community Care award money to train and support more fire
fighters to become involved in this work.

– The young offenders category was sponsored
by Corvedale Care.

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