Degree apprenticeship helped fire service manager produce research with real world impact

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Research by a fire service officer who completed a degree apprenticeship at the University of Chichester will make real changes for retained on-call firefighters in West Sussex.

Gary Ball, an area manager at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (WSFRS), took on a four-year apprenticeship achieving a BA (Hons) in Management at the university, with a final-year project looking at how the service could attract and retain on-call firefighters.

“You cannot operate the fire service in West Sussex without the on-call staff,” Gary explained.

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“We rely on on-call firefighters to just drop what they’re doing and get to the fire station within four minutes to respond to an emergency. It’s a post-World War Two model but people’s availability has changed quite considerably since then.

Gary Ball,  an area manager at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (WSFRS).Gary Ball,  an area manager at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (WSFRS).
Gary Ball, an area manager at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (WSFRS).

"People do not necessarily work in the villages they live in as people are commuting more to work. We need to do something to make it more flexible and attract people who maybe haven’t considered it in the past.”

Gary’s final project looked at a new approach for on-call retained firefighters – which feeds into the fire service’s strategy going forward.

“It lined up quite nicely with the areas I am responsible for in WSFRS, looking at on-call retained duty systems within West Sussex.”

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He surveyed members of the fire service – and was appointed to the National Fire Chiefs Council – so had access to 40 other fire and rescue services to see how they manage the retained service.

Bishop Otter Campus, University of Chichester.Bishop Otter Campus, University of Chichester.
Bishop Otter Campus, University of Chichester.

“I looked at people’s reasons for joining and leaving. In West Sussex, it is driven quite financially because of the cost of living and of course people wanting to serve their local communities,” said Gary.

“Doing it through an academic body gave the project more credibility. It definitely helped get people more engaged with it. We had a 65% return rate on the survey, and I ran seven focus groups in person.”

The research gave recommendations on new contract agreements, renumeration packages and flexible arrangements for retained firefighters. It has been discussed at the fire service scrutiny committee and will inform the service’s future strategy.

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“It will improve their experience coming into the fire service, flexibility, wellbeing, doing the job while mitigating the impact it has on their personal circumstances.”

Gary shared how taking the course has impacted his career, and said: “When I joined the course, I was in middle management. During that time, I’ve been promoted twice. I think the university pathway I took was absolutely pivotal to my career progression. I can combine my lived experience with academic research in leadership and business management which helped me progress.

“You get to look at other sectors, so you’re not blinkered by your own. You’re working with people at different stages of their career and there’s a diversity across industries, from looking after a factory to running a care home to working in the fire service.

"You’re learning the skills that are sometimes overlooked when you are progressing in your career, like strategic financial management or human resources when you’re looking after a lot of people.”

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Gary was the first in the fire service to take the course, and now WSFRS is looking to explore putting more of its staff through the apprenticeship.

“It will benefit the service,” Gary said.

David Goodman, Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Management, said: “The benefits of integrating learning and work are clearly illustrated through the project Gary has done within the fire service.

“As a teaching team at Chichester we are committed to develop our students and apprentices far beyond basic skills and we focus on providing individuals opportunities to expand their knowledge alongside critical thinking. Through approach this we believe students can thrive in their organisational lives, in times of change and uncertainty, and I think Gary typifies this.

"His own development within this project highlights the different he is making to his team and within the wider fire service.”

To find out more about the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship, visit: