Wolverhampton College is trying to get more women and blacks into the fire service, reports Andrew Mourant.
Each year, hundreds of people clamour to join the West Midlands fire service. But only the fit and the competent few make it. And a mere handful of those are female or black.
The fire brigade's image as a white male preserve is not easily broken down. Not that that halts the rush to join. In 1995, West Midlands had to sift through 3,000 applicants - a nightmare that took three years to sort out.
Although the gender and ethnic imbalance remains, Wolverhampton College is chipping away at it. Ten years ago, in its former life as Bilston, the college linked up with the fire service to target women, blacks and the unemployed. Armed with goodwill and money from the Training and Enterprise Council and European Social Fund, Bilston brought the fire station to the classroom via a pre-recruitment access course.
The college runs three courses - an eight-week daytime one with a compulsory residential week, a 10-week evening one, and a further evening course specifically for women to improve strength and fitness.
With careful marketing, the college slowly started to find the people the fire service wanted. One, Aman Sarwar, joined the course after his mother heard an advertisement in Urdu on an Asian radio station in Birmingham. The course is a first step on the ladder. For Anwar, 26, who used to work at Birmingham Airport in customer service, much hangs on it.
During the past 12 turbulent months, his father has died, he has married (his wife remains in Pakistan awaiting a visa), and he has bought a house.
Now he is looking for stability and security. But that is not all. "The attraction of helping to save a life is very strong," he said. "And I thrive under pressure."
Tutor Ken Lloyd says the course has enhanced the confidence of many students. Some, having been unemployed, are at a low ebb when they join. "We run things at a disciplined level - you're expected to be on time," he said.
"It's no good turning up five minutes late for a shift when you're in the fire service."
Of the 129 who embarked on Wolverhampton's courses last year, 24 were taken on by West Midlands or other brigades. Among these were four women and four men who were black or Asian. West Midlands' total intake was 110, of which the college provided 20 per cent. The service, however, insists it will not compromise standards in trying to achieve a wider social mix.
"It would be easy to do," admits station officer Phil James, who has been involved with the project since 1992. "But we have a set standard - we recently rejected an Asian lad who came from the Biston course. If someone from one of our target groups isn't good enough, we wouldn't be doing ourselves any favours by employing them."
Potential recruits, such as 28-year-old Emma Tathem, a black single mother, are anxious that this meritocracy remain. "There's only one black female fire fighter in the West Midlands and people have been telling me 'you'll be fine'. But I don't want to hear that," she said.
Between various college courses Emma has worked as an aerobics teacher but she's long held ambitions to join the fire service. "I rang up a couple of stations, visited them, and was encouraged to come here," she said.
Emma's fitness and resourcefulness are not in doubt. But other qualities are needed, and these are tested on a week's residential course in Snowdonia. Thrown together in a remote converted chapel, under the supervision of a senior officer from West Midlands, a group of students learns to fend for themselves and work as a team.
There are domestic chores and rotas to organise, also orienteering and a night-time exercise where students go out blindfold and follow a rope run across rough terrain. Living cheek by jowl with people from diverse backgrounds isn't for everyone and one or two don't last the week. Emma, however, loved it. "You learn lots of things about yourself you didn't know," she said.
She's more daunted by mathematical aspects of the General Aptitude Test (GAT) than worrying how she would juggle domestic life and caring for her son Levi if eventually accepted by West Midlands. "I've got good family support and very supportive friends," she said. "If I don't get in this time, I'll try again."
Passing the course guarantees only access to the West Midland fire service application form. These are now hard to obtain and valuable currency. Students will not automatically be interviewed - but will be well prepared if called. "In the fire service there can be nepotism in recruitment - those who know people are clued up," said station officer James. "We're trying to create that sort of a network here." One woman making a career in the brigade having gone through the college is Peggy Yeung. "I used to work in a tax office and started coming to evening sessions specifically to build up strength," she said. "I've been in 15 months and love it - you never know what you're going to do on any one day."
Ella Leslie, who originally trained to be a conservation officer with the National Trust, is another graduate from the college's ranks. "As soon as I saw the advert, I never thought of doing anything else," she said. "I hope to go for promotion-you can be operational for 30 years as long as you stay physically fit."