AN URGENT appeal for more on-call crews has sparked the biggest single intake of trainees ever seen by Hampshire fire chiefs.

The latest eight-day course organised by Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service is being attended by 26 people – more than three times the average figure.

It comes just weeks after it was revealed a shortage of retained (part-time) crews could be putting lives at risk.

On-call personnel perform a vital role in rural communities without a full-time crew.

But many fire stations are under-staffed and often have to rely on firefighters being brought in from elsewhere to deal with emergencies.

Droxford is said to be one of the worst-hit villages, with critics claiming the local fire station has “virtually closed”.

Problems are also occurring in parts of the New Forest, including Lyndhurst and Lymington. According to Lyndhurst Parish Council staff shortages mean the local fire station is currently able to offer only a limited response, with cover being provided by Brockenhurst and Redbridge.

A recent blaze at a burger bar in Lymington was attended by crews from other parts of the Forest, plus one from neighbouring Dorset.

HFRS says the recent spike in the number of people training to become retained firefighters is the result of high-profile campaigns carried out over the past six months.

Villages often contain a large number of high-risk buildings such as thatched cottages and huge barns full of highly-inflammable hay.

Academy Station Manager Jason Boh said: “Having a new intake of on-call firefighters is great news for the people of Hampshire.

“These dedicated life-savers are part of the fabric that holds every fire service in the country together and the world-class training they get at the academy helps make them the best.”

The three women and 23 men will provide cover at 16 fire stations, including Stockbridge, Alton and Droxford.

Those who have answered the call include Richard Burnet, 30, of Hamble, whose employer, GE Aviation, has agreed to let him leave work when his pager goes off.

He said: “This seemed a great way to contribute to the community and the company were fully behind that.”

Ty Whitlock, group manager of learning and development at HFRS, added: “Recruiting on-call staff is a challenge for every fire service. We still have vacancies. I’d urge anyone who lives or works close to a fire station, and wants to make a real difference, to get in touch.”