Features: June 15th, 2012

Firefighters need a range of skills beyond firefighting. Many skills require reading and writing and dyslexia can be a severe handicap. This feature describes how technology has come to the rescue of fire and rescue services with text-to-speech software designed for people who struggle with reading and writing.

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

They are constantly updating their knowledge and qualifications. In the past they would perhaps have attended short intensive courses in a classroom with face-to-face tuition, but these days they 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 the problem of dyslexia needed further investigation and talked to senior managers to make sure that they had the correct policies and support in place to continue to meet 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, training and development but if firefighters could not read well they could endanger lives.

The FBU knew it would have to overhaul its policies and find a diagnostic tool which would let them 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 GOLD, 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 at the leading edge when it comes to finding technology which can be used in a workplace to make office software more accessible. Users love Read&Write GOLD because it is a very discreet solution which does not draw attention to their disability.

Trevor quickly realised Read&Write GOLD could support firefighters in many different ways. It could be used both on the service’s computers and on home computers too. It would let the user upload documents and have the text read out loud 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.

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


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

Best of all, Read&Write GOLD has increased the confidence of firefighters with dyslexia when faced with new training and working procedures. Trevor Shanahan said, “Now they 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.”

Alastair Campbell, Business Development Manager with Texthelp, commented, “It is fantastic that Texthelp has been able to work with the FBU to help Fire Authorities and their staff with many of the issues that dyslexia and low literacy skills can raise. All too often I hear of individuals who struggle in silence or who do not have access to the right support and tools. Read&Write GOLD has been used by many UK Fire Authorities to support staff and it is heart-warming to hear the success stories of individuals who have been able to overcome the difficulties and achieve real success in their careers.”

For further information on Read&Write GOLD email elaine@texthelp.com or visit www.texthelp.com