Pilot Program Targets Homeless in UK

Trowbridge is the county town and administrative centre of Wiltshire, situated in the South West of England just a short distance from the cities of Bath and Bristol. Wiltshire is a predominantly rural county, but Trowbridge is a town that boasts a proud industrial heritage and it remains at the heart of local trade and commerce.

As one of the main urban areas within Wiltshire, Trowbridge has its fair share of people who are homeless - and it also has a number of derelict buildings.

Since January 2006, there have been over 20 calls to secondary fires in empty or derelict buildings in the Trowbridge area. While there had been no recent incidents involving homeless people, a man living rough in Warminster -- a market town some 10 miles from Trowbridge -- died in a 2006 fire.

Earlier this year, Wiltshire Fire & Rescue Service (WF&RS) was called to a fire in a derelict building within Trowbridge town centre. Although no one was inside, it was clear that the site had been used by people living rough.

Fire Service Group Manager Steve Williams explained "We didn't know that this building was being used by the homeless, and it worried us that there were probably other places in the town where we could have the potential for people being trapped by fire with no outward sign that the risk existed."

It became clear that there were a number of fire risks and personal safety issues from derelict buildings being used by the homeless:

  • Abundant fuel sources increase the potential for a serious fire. For example, buildings are often not cleared properly and the added bedding and debris from someone living there increases the fire loading.
  • Evidence shows that derelict buildings are often occupied by people using drugs and/or alcohol. This suggests that people may show less caution when lighting fires for food or heat, or using candles for light.
  • Disposable barbecues used in a confined space are a fire hazard and may cause poisoning by fumes.
  • In the absence of amenities, fires lit for heat or cooking may get out control -- this is particularly dangerous if people are intoxicated.
  • There is a danger of bedding or clothing catching light if a naked flame is left burning too close .
  • Cigarettes are generally disposed of in an inappropriate way.
  • There is a lack of smoke detection systems.
  • Older buildings may have asbestos present.
  • It may not be clear whether utilities are connected -- in one case, a man sustained serious burns to his arm following electrocution and, in the case of a recent gas leak, it was fortunate that lit cigarettes didn't cause an explosion.

Firefighters and community safety staff based at the Trowbridge fire station started to visit the town's drop-in center, run by the charity Alabare, to give fire safety advice to the clients.

From this, the idea developed of offering a more practical solution to the problem.

In October, WF&RS presented Alabare with some 40 street survival bags, to be distributed to those individuals who most need the help.

Steve Williams said "We wanted to find a way of reducing the risks for people living on the streets, whilst also providing valuable support for this most vulnerable part of our community."

"Everything we've provided in the bags has been discussed with the people who will be using them. For example, it was their feedback that led to us including a smoke detector. We want to help them to be safe from fire, safe from the elements and safe on the roads, and hopefully this will lead to an improvement in their quality of life."

The survival bags are waterproof backpacks with a reflective stripe on them, to make the carrier more visible to car drivers. The contents include:

  • Wind-up lantern
  • Tobacco tin/ashtray
  • Emergency blanker
  • Roll of toilet paper
  • Cleansing wipes
  • Flask
  • Toothbrush/toothpaste
  • Towel
  • Cutlery
  • First aid kit
  • Rubbish sacks
  • Sleeping bag
  • Smoke detector
  • Plastic mug
  • Plastic plate
  • Socks
  • Razor
  • Poncho
  • Tin opener
  • Sewing kit

The lantern, sleeping bag, blanket, tobacco tin and survival bag are intended to reduce the need for open flames for heat and light. The smoke detector has a 10-year battery and can be taken from place to place by the individual.

In line with WF&RS's targets for reducing fires and road traffic collisions, it is hoped that this pilot scheme will achieve the following:

  • Reduction in the incidence of fire risk
  • Reduction in the risk from road traffic collisions
  • Reduction in the feelings of vulnerability and helplessness that often accompany being homeless
  • A build up of trust with the homeless community and greater communication with the police and voluntary agencies, so that the fire & rescue service is made aware of buildings being used as refuges -- allowing fire safety advice to be given and packs provided as appropriate

As well as helping homeless people to be safer, it is hoped that the initiative will provide vital information on where people are sleeping rough. Steve Williams said: "If we know that a derelict building is used by the homeless, we will know that people could be trapped if a fire is reported. Having that extra intelligence could mean the difference between life and death for someone."

Ali Coxall, from Alabare, said: "This is a fantastic initiative by the Fire & Rescue Service, and something that we think could be unique. The street survival bags will reduce the risk of fire for our clients when they are sleeping rough, and they will be most welcome to those who receive them. We thank Wiltshire Fire & Rescue Service for such generous and practical support."

Over the coming months, the success of the pilot scheme will be evaluated. The hope is to roll out this service to other parts of Wiltshire and promote it nationally as good practice.

LOUISE KNOX is the media and communications manager for Wiltshire Fire & Rescue Service. You can reach Louise by e-mail at: enquiries@wiltsfire.gov.uk.