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Fire service launches sign language project

26 March 2018

A NEW project to help those with learning difficulties is being pioneered by Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service.

The organisation is aiming to become the first emergency service in the country to be Makaton-friendly after the trailblazing example set by Romsey Fire Station.

Makaton is a sign-based way of communicating that can be used by those with conditions that affect their use of language such as autism and Down Syndrome.

The organisation plans to get crews from across the county to learn this technique after it was adopted by Romsey Fire Station which was a key part of Romsey becoming the country’s first Makaton-friendly town.

Of the 22 firefighters based at the station 19 have already had a two-hour session and the others are planning to complete it.

Community Safety Officer and on-call firefighter Phil Nicholson and Watch Manager Antony Hurle arranged these courses with Hannah Anderson, from Speaking Space, who founded the project.

Firefighter Nicholson said: “This is an extremely exciting project for us and I would love to see it rolled out throughout the service.

“Being able to communicate with everyone in the community will help us do our jobs better and quickly get important details at incidents involving people who can’t communicate through speech.

“Firefighters enjoy the trust of the public and it is important that if somebody was lost or needed help that they know they can come to us. It also about making people feel welcome and included in the town and improving their quality of life.

“I was delighted to learn this skill as I feel it makes me a better firefighter. I also wanted to learn for personal reasons because I have nephew with autism.”

The course teaches 20 general terms such as greetings and 10 bespoke to an industry or the organisation ie there’s a person in there, do you need help, come with me, etc.

Ms Anderson said: “The emergency services are a key part of the project. In an emergency situation communication is vital and a few simple signs could make all the difference.

“Firefighters also do a lot of community engagement and having the ability to reach these extra people and impart messages in a way not possible before could be invaluable.

“Even being able to greet people in the street would just help people – who are often nervous around people in uniform – know that firefighters are always there to help.”

She added that she is currently working on other areas of Hampshire and has been speaking to groups in Andover and Gosport.

Head of Inclusion Paul Breakwell said: “Inclusion is at the heart of everything we do as a service. What has been happening in Romsey – and our firefighters' part in it - is truly inspirational and we look forward to introducing this to more of our crews.

“Every firefighter is passionate about keeping the communities of Hampshire safe and improving people’s lives. Learning Makaton is a natural progression for us.”