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Fire Brigades Union

“Staff now understand their own learning capabilities and what works for them. This has helped them in their family and social lives as well as at work. The Fire Service has improved its efficiency because individuals have a clearer understanding of procedures. Now they respond more quickly and can operate at a higher level.”

Trevor Shanahan, The Fire Brigades Union

Read&Write in the Fire Brigades Union

Read&Write in the Fire Brigades Union

The Challenge

The Fire and Rescue Service is a ‘safety critical’ industry and requires a highly trained workforce. Firefighters need to have experience in many different areas including road traffic accidents, first aid, dealing with trauma and using breathing apparatus correctly. Modern firefighters also need IT skills for the administration they do, such as data management and logging fire and incident reports.

Firefighters are required to constantly update their knowledge and qualifications. In the past they would have attended short intensive courses in a classroom with face-to-face tuition, but now are often required to follow online courses. Web-based materials can be a barrier to those who have dyslexia as the Fire Brigades Union discovered when a number of firefighters approached Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) to ask for help.

The union takes action

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has about 50,000 members and is committed to the principle of lifelong learning. The Union Learning Representatives appreciated that dyslexia needed further investigation and spoke to senior managers to ensure that the correct policies and support were in place to comply with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

In October 2004, the DDA was amended to include a number of professions which had previously been exempt, including police and prison officers, firefighters and people who work on board ships, aircraft or hovercraft. Employers have a duty not to discriminate against a disabled person in the recruitment and retention of employees, promotion and transfers and training & development. If firefighters have trouble reading, it could have disastrous consequences.

The FBU knew it would have to overhaul its policies and find a diagnostic tool which would allow them to identify those with dyslexia. They would also need to provide support tools to help the employees to make reasonable adjustments so that firefighters could do their job more effectively and reduce risks to themselves and to the public.

Why Texthelp?

National Project Manager Trevor Shanahan had heard about Read&Write, text-to-speech software for people who struggle with reading and writing, through other organisations and unions involved in the promotion of learning. He invited Texthelp to attend one of his project team meetings to give a presentation.

Texthelp has been developing assistive technology software for people with disabilities, including dyslexia, since 1996. The company is the worldwide leader in literacy software solutions, enabling information in the workplace to be more accessible. Users love Read&Write because it is a very discreet solution which does not draw attention to their disability.

Trevor quickly realised Read&Write could support firefighters in many different ways. It could be used both on the service’s computers and on home computers too. It would allow the user to upload documents and have the text read aloud so they could listen to training materials instead of struggling to read them. It also has a wide range of settings which could easily be tailored to meet an individual’s specific needs so they would be much more competent in both their reading and writing.

Texthelp provided information sessions and a Certified Training course for Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) so they can now deliver training on Read&Write.


The union, its members and senior management are all much more aware of the issues surrounding dyslexia. They have received awareness training and can now support members who have dyslexia. The union produced a publication called Dyslexia Guidance for FBU Officials and Members. This contains practical guidance on presenting written materials, giving instructions, organising workflow and good practice in assessments for recruitment/promotion.

Most importantly, Read&Write has increased the confidence of firefighters with dyslexia when faced with new training and working procedures, from the screen and having to make adjustments that were not discreet or tidy. This is just one of many ways staff are able to work better and more comfortably with the support of Read&Write.