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Call to douse fire 'games'

Fire union seeks crisis campaign as gangs of children endanger lives with firebug craze. Nicola Porter reports.

Children as young as five are taking part in a new craze sweeping Wales - setting life-threatening booby traps for firefighters in the line of duty.

Gangs of young yobs are making false 999 calls to the emergency services and ambushing firefighters on arrival.

Welsh firefighters have also had to douse fires started deliberately by the gangs in order to lure crews into their pre-planned ambush. Dick Pearson, regional secretary of the Fire Brigades Union Wales, said the game was most popular in the south Wales valleys, where fire crews were daily targets.

He said firefighters had been showered with stones and bricks, shot at with air rifles, spat at and urinated upon. "There have been dangerous games played by schoolchildren before, such as dare or chicken," he said. "But this is something else."

He added: "These kids see tricking firefighters, ambushing their vehicles and equipment and trying to stop them doing their job as a bit of fun."

Mr Pearson called on the Welsh Assembly to launch a country-wide crisis campaign, aimed at schools and youth clubs, before someone is killed. The Assembly has responsibility for Wales's three fire brigades in north, south, and mid and west Wales.

Since power was devolved from Westminster, money has been pumped into arson-reduction schemes aimed at young "firebugs" who try to burn down their schools.

Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning, has pledged to investigate setting up more anti-arson education schemes within schools, and especially within the key stage 2 curriculum. But Mr Pearson said a concerted education campaign with ring-fenced cash should be directed to tackle firefighter abuse as well.

"Abuse of firefighters from young people is just as big a threat as alcohol and drug abuse," he said. "It should have the poster campaigns, TV advertising and funding that these projects have.

"Children are taught about the importance of firefighters in KS2, but there needs to be more done in the classroom to prevent a nation of young firebugs."

Rhys Williams, of the National Union of Teachers Cymru, said the Welsh Assembly should encourage schools to tackle the problem during personal, health and social education lessons.

He said that the PHSE curriculum should be flexible enough to include dangerous fads such as firefighter abuse.

One of the first community-based projects to tackle firefighter abuse by schoolchildren has been set up in Swansea by the council's youth offending team.

The scheme roots out the worst troublemakers and engages them on a behaviour programme. They are threatened with an anti-social behaviour order if they continue to abuse the fire service, and their parents are informed.

Co-ordinators report a 70 per cent drop in firefighter abuse since the scheme launched last year.

Figures released by the Fire Brigades Union reveal that attacks on Britain's firefighters have soared to 40 a week, but the union said that under-reporting meant the actual number was probably far higher.

Andy Gilchrist, FBU general secretary, said: "The number and ferocity of the attacks are getting worse." He has also called for more school-based initiatives to curb the problem.

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