Young actors in fire training role

Shrewsbury teenager Harry Woodman sets fire to paper as Summer Robertson prepares to use an aerosol in a role playing exercise by the 15-year-olds to train Shropshire intervention sessional workers

Budding young Shrewsbury performers are using their acting talents to train intervention workers from Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service in a bid to stop arson attacks by Shropshire children.

The teenagers, who recently performed the Wizard of Oz on the stage at the Sundorne School, Shrewsbury, swapped the yellow brick road for a downward spiral of delinquency when they became deliberate fire raisers to test new members of the brigade's early intervention team.

In a role playing drama they became sullen and withdrawn teenagers who deliberately lit aerosols and used them as flame throwers for kicks. Eight new intervention trainees from the Shropshire brigade had to demonstrate their communication skills by "engaging positively" with the challenging teenagers.

One actor turned into a deliberate school firesetter while another acted out the role of a child with moderate learning difficulties.

"These are typical real life scenes which our intervention team has to deal with across Shropshire," said Lynn Hosking, fire service youth officer.

"They are all highly motivated team members who actively engage and educate children as young as four and young people aged up to 18 about playing with fire."

Deliberate fireraisers cost the taxpayer thousands of pounds each year as they set fire to public places, bins, grassland, their own homes, schools, public buildings, offices and factories. In Summer the incidents of arson increase dramatically with more than 500 reported incidents in the county from June to September last year.

A team of 15, which will include the latest new members, talk to more than 100 Shropshire fireraisers each year, visiting them in their homes and teaching them the consequences of playing with fire.

Bob Milton, a firefighter for 31 years from red watch at Shrewsbury, has visited four children since joining the team three months ago.

"Children do experiment. They go through a phase and it is rewarding to know that we are being successful in educating them about the dangers.

"It is very challenging. You have to talk to children at their level and we try to put over how dangerous it is to experiment with matches and lighters and the consequences that can and do happen. They may have a pet which could be killed if their house is set on fire because they have been playing with matches," said Bob.

Another new member of the team is Helen Lambert, a business fire safety officer based at Shrewsbury fire HQ, who was encouraged to take part by a colleague.

"It is very rewarding, a levelling experience and an eye opener," said Helen, who enforces fire safety legislation in Shropshire firms.

"It is very easy for people to have perceptions about naughty kids but when you talk to them you get to hear their side of the story and what they are going through. It is very worthwhile to make them understand the consequences of their actions."

She praised the young Shrewsbury actors who put their "heart and soul" into the performance in which one studied the behaviour of children with ADHD and another turned up covered in bruises to act out their parts.

"They were absolutely brilliant and really tested our skills," she said.

The fire service receives referrals from professionals working in the community and from fire crews who make referrals on behalf of parents after carrying out free home safety surveys and fitting free smoke alarms.

"Parents call us in when they are at the end of their tether because their children are setting fire to all sorts of materials, often in the home. They are putting themselves and their families at risk and once we set in motion a number of visits we are very successful in stopping the behaviour with an average 89 per cent success rate," added Lynn Hosking.

One activity which advisors use with very young children is to ask them to go on a treasure hunt to find matches and lighters in their own home.

"They always come back with a handful and then we highlight to parents how resourceful young children can be and how they need to take responsibility for ensuring the security of ignition sources," said Lynn.

The intervention team also receive skills training from professional trainers to enhance one to one and group communication skills with young offenders. They also work with the Youth Offending Service in arson prevention and vehicle crime.

The part the fire service plays in reducing arson attacks will be explained to Shropshire magistrates during courses being held in July at courts in the county.

1st July, 2008