Retained, Auxiliary and Volunteer Firefighters in the Scottish Fire Service
Early in 2001, Lambda Research and Consultancy was commissioned by HM Inspectorate of Fire Services in Scotland to undertake research into the characteristics, role and aspirations of Retained, Auxiliary and Volunteer (referred to in this report as Rural and Retained) firefighters in the Scottish Fire Service.
The study was undertaken specifically as a result of concerns by some Scottish brigades over issues of recruitment and retention of rural and retained firefighters, and therefore sought to examine these issues, alongside others of relevance to the effective management and development of this important resource. The study aimed to gather factual information on the characteristics of rural and retained firefighters, the views and expectations of the group, and the views of the senior officers in the brigades that employ them.
The objectives of the research were specifically to:
- Provide quantitative information on the characteristics of rural and retained firefighters;
- Explore the reasons why people choose to be a rural or retained firefighter;
- Investigate rural and retained firefighters' views of the service and of their role within the service;
- Assess the impact which the demands of the service has on the other aspects of the lives of rural and retained firefighters;
- Identify any reasons/pressures for leaving the service;
- Consider the performance expectations of brigades for this group and how it compares to wholetime firefighters;
- Identify any actual or potential conflicts between the individuals' and the brigades' expectations;
- Identify attitudes to different methods of learning and training currently provided, and to other methods which could be used in the future (e.g. distance learning, computer based training, residential courses).
The study was undertaken between February and September 2001.
Rural and Retained Firefighters
Rural and retained firefighters are individuals who serve as firefighters, but who are not employed on a full-time basis. They fall into three categories:
Retained firefighters are paid an annual retainer fee, in return for which provide agreed on-call hours of cover each day or week over the year. As a result of recent changes in employment legislation, they are now eligible for an annual leave entitlement 1. In addition to the retaining fee, retained firefighters are paid for turning out in response to calls, for attending training and other specific activities organised by their brigade, and for attending incidents 2.
Retained units are generally equipped to much the same extent as wholetime units 3, and it was reported that retained firefighters cover much the same training syllabus as wholetime firefighters (though necessarily have less time to give to the training). One senior officer reported that as retained firefighters sometimes have to cover for wholetime firefighters, it is essential that that they have the same basic skill set.
Retained units generally deal with a relatively substantial number of calls each year - some as high as 500 calls per year, though some brigades are upgrading smaller volunteer stations to retained, or near-retained status for operational reasons. As a result the number of calls dealt with by retained stations varies considerably. This also means that the payment received by the retained firefighters varies accordingly, as does the demand placed on the firefighters' time. For firefighters in a busy retained station, the money they earn from the retainer, the turn-outs, the attendances at calls and the training can be a reasonably substantial addition to that of their full-time job, or in some cases can be the firefighter's main occupation.
Volunteer firefighters on the other hand are not paid a retaining fee, but volunteer to be available to respond to calls in many ways similar to retained firefighters. Volunteer units are generally located in small rural communities, and deal with only a relatively small number of incidents a year (typically around 10-15). In cases where the volunteer unit is called out, the nearest retained or wholetime unit will generally be called out at the same time, to ensure that the volunteer firefighters are supported by fully trained and equipped colleagues.
The equipment provided for volunteer firefighters can range from extremely basic (sometimes only a portable pump, which the firefighters carry to an incident in their own cars) to a level which approaches that of a retained unit.
Volunteer firefighters generally receive significantly less training than their retained counterparts (typically 2 hours per month, as compared to 2 or 3 hours per week for retained firefighters), though where they are equipped to a level near to that of a retained unit, the training tends to be increased to match.
Auxiliary firefighters form a relatively new category, introduced in Highland and Islands Fire Brigade to reflect the enhanced provision given to many of the volunteer units throughout the large rural and remote area of that brigade. Auxiliary firefighters are volunteers, but are equipped and trained to a level approaching that of a retained unit.
Although there are these three categories of rural and retained firefighter, in practice, they form a continuum. This ranges from the volunteer in the very remote rural community, equipped and trained to only a basic level but only dealing with a small number of calls a year, through slightly better-equipped volunteers working in slightly larger communities, right through the scale of size up to the busiest of retained units, or to stations which combine one or more wholetime crews with a retained crew.
For the purposes of this study, it is important to remember that each of the three categories of rural and retained firefighter do not form a homogeneous group. From the point of view of attitudes to the service, rewards, and commitment, it is necessary to look at the continuum, and to relate firefighter attitudes to a number of factors. These factors include:
- geographical location;
- local culture;
- proximity to other stations;
- the extent to which the unit responds on its own to calls, or is covered by another station - for example, when some retained units respond to a call, the nearest wholetime unit is mobilised at the same time 4; similarly, when some auxiliary units respond to a call, the nearest retained unit is mobilised at the same time;
- the provision of equipment - not just the amount of equipment and its suitability for the job, but how it compares to that used by wholetime units (or in the case of volunteer units by retained units); and
- the extent to which the brigade management keeps in touch with the unit.
The results from this study, therefore, try to draw general conclusions from the population of rural and retained firefighters, but the applicability of the results in any one instance will depend on these numerous other factors.
Another point worth noting at this stage is that the extent of use made of rural and retained firefighters varies very significantly between brigades; brigades such as Highland and Dumfries & Galloway, rely almost entirely on rural and retained firefighters. In other brigades the rural and retained firefighters make up a relatively smaller, though still very significant, proportion of the total complement.
Table 1 (on next page) shows the extent to which the use of rural and retained firefighters varies between brigades - retained units ranging from 20% in Strathclyde to 64% in Dumfries and Galloway, and volunteer (including auxiliary) units ranging from 0% in Fife and Lothian & Borders, to 56% in Highland & Islands.
Table 1: Percentage of total operational complement that is rural or retained by brigade.
Total operational complement (exc. control)
Percentage volunteer or auxiliary
Dumfries & Galloway
Highland & Islands
Lothian & Borders
Source: HMCI Report 1999-2000