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Last Updated: Monday, 16 August, 2004, 10:12 GMT 11:12 UK
Why disability is no bar to firefighting
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

Photo of Gary Webb
Gary Webb has diabetes and remains a firefighter
In just over a month from now, disability discrimination laws will cover the UK's uniformed civilian services - police, fire and prison officers. But how is the physically demanding world of firefighting preparing for employees with disabilities?

Gary Webb had been a firefighter for 19 years when, aged 37, he was diagnosed with diabetes.

"I assumed it was the end," he told BBC News Online.

"I felt really ill - in fact I thought I had cancer."

"I presumed I'd lose my job and the medic says much the same thing."

When Webb found out that he had Type 1 diabetes - which means that he is insulin dependent - he went to Diabetes UK for advice.

He was put in touch with London firefighter, Tim Hoy, who runs a register of diabetic firefighters.

"Tim told me to get myself well again first, then I could prove to other people that I was up to the job," Webb recalls.

Like many other Type 1 diabetics, he began to keep a diary of his insulin injections, exercise routines and eating habits to help understand his condition and manage his health.

The service is on a similar learning curve now as it was for gender some years back
Michelle Valentine, DRC
In many cases, such a diary and careful control can help someone with diabetes learn to lead a virtually normal life.

Many people have the condition under such excellent control, they no longer see it as something debilitating: they just accept it as something they have to manage as part of their routine.

So when Gary went back to work and presented his diary to the personnel officers at Cheshire Fire Service, they accepted it would be wrong just to declare him unfit for active duty.

Instead, they carried out a risk assessment and decided that, with a few adjustments, there was no reason why he should not be still considered a capable firefighter.

Today, Gary's diabetes means he is no longer allowed to drive a fire engine, but other than that, he is still part of the team.

He keeps a duplicate set of his medication with him at all times and has learnt how to vary his insulin injection schedule and intake of sugars, usually through soft drinks, in line with the physical demands of the job.

New rules

The approach taken by Cheshire Fire Service which led to Gary Webb keeping his job will become the norm when laws that already protect disabled people in the workplace are extended in October this year to cover the uniformed services - police, fire and prison service.

Photo of firefighters on active service
The Fire Service is having to rethink its fitness criteria
Like the other two services, the fire service has a culture of peak physical fitness.

The traditional response to anyone who developed a lasting impairment was to consider them for medical retirement.

"We need to dismantle institutional barriers to employing disabled people," says Cheshire's chief fire officer, Steve McGuirk.

He says that the role of firefighters is changing and not all roles will demand such stringent fitness tests.

So, under proposed work practices currently being negotiated, firefighters who are develop a disability will not necessarily be given automatic medical retirement from the service. Other jobs will be found, says the force.

"We're going to be employing more community fire safety officers to increase the work we do on fire prevention." says CFO McGuirk.

"There's absolutely no reason why a disabled person couldn't do that job."

Culture change challenges

The Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers' Association (CACFOA) - for whom McGuirk speaks on disability issues - is working with the Disability Rights Commission on ways to make the fire service more disabled-friendly.

The Fire Brigades Union and the management were both very negative
Tim Hoy, London firefighter
"The first big job that has to be done is to change the culture - and that's also one of the hardest," the DRC's Michelle Valentine told BBC News Online.

"The fire service is on a similar learning curve now as it was for gender some years back."

In its negotiations with the service, the DRC is encouraging chief fire officers to look at each case on its individual merits, rather than make assumptions based on preconceived ideas about disability.

This is where the law's insistence that employers should make 'reasonable adjustments' comes in.

"In the case of a firefighter who develops a long term condition this means carrying out a risk assessment and taking a much more realistic approach," says Ms Valentine.

The DRC is suggesting that one way of doing this is to use case studies of firefighters like Gary Webb who have managed to stay on the frontline because their condition is manageable.

Another is to get disabled people from other walks of life to come in and challenge preconceptions about disability.

For instance, Paralympic athletes explode the myth that disabled people are physically frail and passive.

"The most important thing is to persuade senior and line managers of the need for change," says Ms Valentine.

Lone voice

London firefighter Tim Hoy has been campaigning for diabetic firefighters to be kept in the service for the last 15 years.

Photo of Gary Webb aboard a fire engine
Webb regrets no longer being able to drive a fire engine
Today, there are 63 firefighters on Hoy's register and he has become an expert witness for the Disability Rights Commission.

"This stuff is now fairly mainstream," he says. "But back then I was on my own - the Fire Brigades Union and the service were both very negative.

"Diabetes UK used to have guidance that recommended no shift work and no climbing ladders. I got involved and managed to get all that changed."

But aside from the law, Gary Webb says the most important quality needed by people who find themselves in a situation such as his is plenty of self belief.

While he regrets no longer being able to drive the fire engine, he knows he has kept his job by preventing other people's ignorance from dictating his future.

"Take control of your destiny because ultimately you are responsible for yourself," he says.

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