DORSET'S fire service could be recruiting apprentices to tackle the problem of an ageing workforce.

Of the 798 people employed by Dorset Fire and Rescue Service (DFRS), only 91 are under the age of 29.

Those at the top have called the situation a 'major concern,' with worries that unless the problem is addressed, the service is 'heading for suicide.'

Members of the Dorset Fire Authority's Audit and Scrutiny Committee have said they are fully behind the possibility of an apprenticeship scheme.

They heard from members of Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service which has set up a similar, successful initiative.

Tim Wareham, training manager at Staffordshire, said the apprentices had had a 'profound effect' on the workforce.

The estimated cost for recruting an apprentice would be around £30,000 for three years.

In comparison, the estimated cost for recruiting a trainee firefighter would be around £75,000 for three years.

Dorset Fire and Rescue Service does not have any wholetime firefighters under 25 and only one manager in the service is aged under 40.

Chief Fire Officer Darran Gunter said although it is concerning, he was pleased the authority was taking steps to address the problem as quickly as possible.

He said: “We turned this around. We had the report in February and here we are in March listening to one possible solution.”

As reported in the Echo, a decision over Dorset combining with Wiltshire will be made in September.

But members of the Audit and Scrutiny Committee raised concerns as to whether the implementation of an apprenticeship scheme could scupper merger talks.

Chairman Trevor Jones said: “We need to talk to Wiltshire because part of our decision about combination is about the need to do things more effectively, so we are going to have to shed some staff.

“At a time when we are shedding staff we need to be sensible about bringing in other people. Especially if it looks as though we are bringing in cheap labour to replace costly labour.

“But we have not got a plethora of alternatives to this.”

He added: “We are in favour in principle of this and we ought to work to continue on this but we mustn't make the mistake of doing it in too much of a rush.