22 April 2005
Ken Hunter is a firefighter with a difference, as he also helps steer children and young offenders away from a life of car crime and arson. After 26 years in the fire service, he has just picked up the top individual prize in the Public Finance awards. Anat Arkin reports
The car crime meeting got off to a shaky start when a dazed-looking youth asked the man leading it if he was a 'plod'. Ken Hunter replied that he wasn't a police officer, and that he wasn't talking about car crime because it was against the law or even because it was wrong. He was a firefighter, and more concerned with the deaths that were the direct or indirect result of car crimes.
That got the attention of his audience – a group of young offenders with heroin problems – and Hunter held it for the rest of the 45-minute session. Using down-to-earth language and without ever being patronising, he got the group to explore their own beliefs about car crime and to compare these with the harsh realities that victims experience. All four members of the group took part in what quickly turned into a lively discussion.
Discussing car crime with drug users might seem worlds away from what firefighters usually do. But Hunter, who has just been named the Outstanding Public Servant of the Year, has been pushing back the boundaries of his job for the past decade.
It all started in June 1995 when the community fire safety department of the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service received a call from a woman whose seven-year-old son had started playing with fire. The single mother was distraught. She had already tried to get help from the police and other agencies and come up against a brick wall. The fire service, too, was not equipped to do much for parents in her position.
'At that time there was nothing in place to deal with young kids who were messing with fire,' says Hunter, who took the call. 'The normal way would be to take the child down to the local fire station, and get the biggest, ugliest, meanest looking fireman to give the kid the fright of his life.'
Hunter and his colleagues realised that without understanding why such a young child was lighting fires, giving him a fright was unlikely to do much good. But Hunter, a single parent himself at the time, was determined to help, and arranged to visit the woman and talk to her son.
Casting around for a way of approaching this task, he decided to copy a few pages from Frances the Firefly, a picture book published by the government to teach fire safety in schools. The idea was to tell the child the story of Frances and show him the accompanying video, but leave the drawings for him to colour in later, which would give his mother a chance to retell the fire safety story.
'So we did that and monitored the child for quite a while. After three months, when the mother was happy with the child, we issued him with a certificate,' Hunter recalls.
The approach he used with that little boy formed the basis of one of the first child fire awareness programmes in the country, which is now the model used by many other fire brigades. Hunter stresses that he couldn't have got the programme off the ground, let alone develop it further, without the support of other members of the community fire safety team, especially his then line manager, Richard Brabbs, who now heads the brigade's arson task force.
But there can be no doubting Hunter's own pioneering contribution to fire safety education, which has now been recognised in the form of two Public Servants of the Year Awards. The ground-breaking education programmes he developed and the work he does with children and young offenders have earned him the Making a Difference to People – social inclusion award. It also made him the judges' choice for the top award: Outstanding Public Servant of the Year.
Explaining the judges' thinking, Roger Singleton, chief executive of Barnardo's children's charity and a member of the judging panel, says: 'Ken's work in pioneering an education programme for children and young people who start fires has been imaginative, creative and effective. He developed the initiative personally and his ideas have now been adopted by many fire brigades.'
There was nothing in Hunter's early life to suggest that he would up end up getting this sort of praise. Abandoned by his parents, he was brought up by his grandparents and became, by his own admission, an angry and violent teenager. However, as he grew up, he learnt to channel his aggression into karate, a sport at which he excelled. At one point, he was even a member of a martial arts team representing England at international events.
His working life at first showed a lack of direction. He served an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic and then worked as a professional karate instructor and a scaffolder, before eventually settling on a career as a firefighter at the unusually late age of 28.
He joined the fire service because, as he says, 'everyone loves a fireman'. He also thought that rescuing people from burning buildings would be a way of making up for the harm he had done in his younger days.
Hunter spent 16 years as an operational firefighter, but eventually felt that he wanted to do something to stop fires before they happened, rather than pick up the pieces after they had destroyed lives. So he transferred to the brigade's community fire safety department, and says he has never missed the excitement of his former role.
'I believe that I've done more good and saved more lives in these past ten years off a fire engine than in the 16 years I sat on one,' he adds.
During his first couple of years in the fire safety department, Hunter was part of a team working with the local Asian community to reduce deaths and injuries from accidental fires, which were then 2.5% higher than the national average. It was while he was doing this work that Hunter took the call from the mother of the young boy who was starting fires.
Since it was clear that this child's behaviour was far from unique, Hunter and his colleagues decided to put together an education programme to tackle it. They contacted the people who owned the artwork for Frances the Firefly and the Fireman Sam picture books and got permission to use some of it in a fire safety workbook for five to eight year-olds. But kids don't stop playing with fire at the age of eight. So the team also devised a workbook for the next age group, this one consisting of colouring in, hazard-spotting and word search games. There were also crosswords, which though too difficult for many of the children using the book, were intended to get their parents involved and interested in the programme.
The workbooks provide one piece of work for the child and his or her family to do every week for three months. The community fire safety team will ring the family every month to find out how things are going. At the end of three months, if there have been no further incidents, the child will receive a certificate from one of the fire safety officers. If there are problems, an officer will visit the family to find out what is going on and, since the fire service can't refer a child directly to child and adolescent units, write to their GP.
Hunter asked a couple of child psychologists to evaluate the programme, and they described it as 'perfect'. But convincing other agencies that the fire service had the wherewithal to address fire-setting behaviour – or, indeed, that it was a serious problem – wasn't easy.
'Back then, in 1996/97, I don't think a lot of other agencies recognised the potential danger of children playing with fire,' says Hunter. 'There was one child who systematically removed batteries from a smoke alarm with the intention of killing his family. He was only a young child, but when he went to his GP, the GP said: "Don't worry about it. I used to light fires when I was a kid and look at me now".'
But attitudes changed once word got around that approximately 90% of children who had been through the fire awareness programme were no longer starting fires. In 1995, Hunter and his colleagues received around 60 referrals from agencies involved in child health and welfare, a number that has now gone up to an average of 200 a year.
In the early days of the child fire awareness programme, Hunter and Richard Brabbs decided that they needed to hone their communication skills. They enrolled on a six-month counselling skills course, following that up with a further 12-month course leading to a certificate in counselling.
'The idea of that wasn't so that we could sit and counsel children. It was to give us more insight into what was being said to us, to help us understand how to get the most out of people,' explains Hunter, who later went on to do an A-level psychology course in his own time.
In 1998, when the Crime and Disorder Act came into force, giving fire authorities a role in fighting crime, Hunter began working with the newly formed youth offending teams. He developed a six-session course designed to help these teams cut the re-offending rate among arsonists. This was trialled with one of the youth offending teams in West Yorkshire and then rolled out in the other 11 teams. With the re-offending rate among those who have completed the course close to zero, magistrates in the county now regularly refer young arsonists on to it as part of their sentences.
The success of this education work led to a five-session programme that aimed to cut youth car crime, which takes up a significant chunk of the time and resources of all fire brigades. Possibly as a result of this programme – although the link is difficult to prove – vehicle crime and related arson in the Leeds area have plummeted, showing a reduction of more than 33% in 2004 compared with the previous year.
Hunter now works with all the youth offending teams and secure units in West Yorkshire, while devoting the rest of his time to training other officers to run the various programmes he has set up. These include a new course for people working with fire setters and young offenders, which has attracted students from several other fire brigades.
Hunter is due to retire in July, but hopes that the fire service will ask him to come back to carry on with some of the work he is doing at the moment. As Peter McCreesh, group manager in charge of community fire safety for the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, points out, this unusual firefighter has a special relationship with young people and speaks their language.
McCreesh, who nominated Hunter for the Public Servants of the Year Awards, says: 'Ken has overcome the barriers many others face in dealing with the youth of today. His programmes work through his imagination, personality and determination, and his commitment and ability to deliver his safety message their way.'