A retained firefighter, also known as a Firefighter working the Retained Duty System (RDS), RDS Firefighter, part-time firefighter or on-call firefighter, in the United Kingdom and Ireland is a professional firefighter who may have full-time employment outside of the fire service but responds to emergency calls within their local area as and when required.
When required to answer an emergency call, retained firefighters are summoned to the fire station by a radio pager (also known as a "bleeper"). Once at the station, the crews staff the fire engine and proceed to the incident. Retained firefighters are therefore required to live or work near to the fire station they serve. This allows them to respond to emergencies within acceptable and strict attendance time targets set out by each fire service.
Typically, retained firefighters are employed in rural areas or in large villages or small towns. They provide cover to 90% of the area of the UK - there are 14,000 in England and Wales. Of the approximately 8,500 operational firefighters in Scotland, about 32% are retained. London Fire Brigade, West Midlands Fire Service and Guernsey Fire and Rescue Service are the only three fire and rescue services in the British Islands that do not have any retained firefighters.
Unlike volunteer firefighters, retained firefighters receive an annual "retainer fee" and are paid on a "per emergency call" basis. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the Retained Firefighters' Union (RFU) represent the interests of retained firefighters across the country.
Retained firefighters were traditionally called "part-time firefighters". However this term is now widely acknowledged as inaccurate as most retained staff are not allowed to provide any less than 70 hours a week 'on call'.
Some retained firefighters, for instance, provide 120 hours cover each week unlike their full-time colleagues, who normally work a 48-hour shift system over eight days.
Wholetime firefighters do not usually respond to emergencies during the time when they are off duty, unless there are under dual contract arrangements. Generally, wholetime or full-time firefighters do not respond to calls when they are off-duty as they are assigned to a watch on permanent shifts. However, most retained firefighters can only provide cover at set times due to their full-time employment commitments. For example, it may be that some personnel can provide cover during the day in any given week or only evenings and weekends per week. Often it is a mixture of both.
Availability to receive calls could depend upon the flexibility of the firefighter's full-time employer and the individual's personal circumstances.
A critical level of fire cover must be provided at all times and retained firefighters are expected to give as much commitment as possible. In fact, they are not normally permitted to give less than 60 hours per week in terms of cover. On average, retained firefighters across the UK provide between 80 and 110 hours week on standby.
When available for a call, retained firefighters carry radio pagers to alert them to an emergency call. They must live or work a maximum of 4.5 minutes from the fire station at which they serve and respond to the fire station before manning the fire appliance and attending an incident. The time is dependent on which fire and rescue organisation they work for.
In Ireland, some on-call firefighters were summoned by means of an air raid-type siren mounted on the local fire station. Now they are all on a pager system, either controlled locally in the case of Cork and Dublin, or by a regional control centre (CAMP) in the rest of the country.
Upon receiving an emergency call via radio pager, retained firefghters immediately respond to the fire station. Unlike many volunteer firefighters in the United States, retained firefighters are not permitted to use blue lights or sirens on their personal vehicles to get to the station, and they must obey normal road traffic laws at all times whilst en route.
The British Government reviewed the situation in 2008, but decided that to give every retained firefighter a blue light would effectively "dilute" the importance of blue lights. Most importantly, use of blue lights by retained staff may cause confusion for local road users, particularly where multiple vehicles would be responding to a particular fire station from several directions at once.
Role within the community
Many people choose to become retained firefighters to serve the community in which they live. The Retained Duty System operates exactly in the same way as the full-time service. In the UK, retained firefighters are responsible for undertaking community fire safety work alongside their full-time colleagues. This involves talks to local school children, home safety checks, and fitting of free smoke detectors in homes.
Some RDS fire stations receive hundreds of call-outs per year, comparable or sometimes greater than some full-time fire stations. Other RDS stations receive a relatively small number of call-outs. Some fire and rescue services employ a system known as "day manning" or "day staffing", where the fire station is operated by a full-time watch during the day and covered by retained firefighters at night.
Training and competency
Traditionally, retained firefighters did not receive the same level of training as their full-time colleagues because their employment commitments would have made this impractical. Full-time firefighters attend training school for an initial period of 13-20 weeks, depending on the fire and rescue service they have joined.
Retained firefighters now undertake the same training modules as full-time recruits, spread over a greater period of time due to full-time employment job commitments. The new National Firefighter Training Syllabus is now widely-adopted and consists of a three-week "core skills" module, a two-week breathing apparatus module, a one-week HAZMAT module, a one-week road traffic collision module, plus several weekend trauma care/EMT and first aid courses. On completion of this, firefighters then enter an on station development stage over a three year period, once they have completed their development stage they then become competent and receive a higher level of pay. The modules are also backed up by ongoing training on station in multi-disciplined roles, procedures and equipment.
In December 2003, recognising the need for a review of the retained duty system, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the department responsible for fire and resilience at that time, called for a report. Published in February 2005, it noted:
"The system of flexible local fire cover needs to attract a new pool of applicants who would not have considered the opportunity previously. The recruitment problems stem in part from the level of pay, the lack of a pension, the lack of development opportunities and the often inflexible availability system."
As well as responding to emergency calls and undertaking community fire safety initiatives, retained firefighters attend weekly training nights to maintain competency levels. They must also undertake routine checks on their equipment and fire appliance, as well as test, clean and maintain the equipment to ensure it will work properly when required during an emergency. Some retained stations are involved in co-responder schemes, whereby fire crews act as first responders providing first aid prior to the attendance of paramedics.
- Department for Communities and Local Government: Fire & Resilience - Retained Duty System (accessed 23 April 07)
- ODPM: The Fire and Rescue service Retained Duty System - A review of recruitment and retention challenges, pub TSO, Feb 2005 (see p28 Terminology)
- Scottish Executive: Retained firefighterd in the Scottish fire service (accessed 23 Apr 07)
- The future of Sedgley Fire Station, which was an RDS station, is yet to be decided, but it is currently non-operational.
- Department for Communities and Local Government: Fire & Resilience - Retained Duty System p56, sec 5.22(accessed 23 April 07)
- ODPM: The Fire & Rescue Service Retained Duty System - A review of recruitment and retention challenges, pub TSO, Feb 2005 (see Introduction)