IFE News

02 September 2019

International Conference Day Two Report

Day Two of Conference

Before introducing the speakers for the second day of the conference, outgoing IFE President Richard Fowler MSc BEng(Hons) CMgr MCMI CFIFireE unexpectedly asked Steve Emery, Fire Officer at Oxford University, to step forward to the podium. Mr Fowler said Mr Emery was passionate about raising awareness of issues affecting fire safety and emergency planning in heritage buildings, particularly regarding fire doors and the spread of fire within historic buildings. Mr Emery had also produced guidance on the use and upgrading of historic doors within heritage properties.

Mr Fowler added: “Steve spends an immeasurable amount of time researching and producing guides to raise awareness of the issues affecting historic buildings. He is often a speaker at conferences and is a regular visitor to this conference, updating us on the work of the heritage group.” In recognition of his work on heritage buildings, Mr Emery was presented with a Companion Award.

Keynote Speaker - Ann Millington

Ann Millington, Chief Executive, Kent Fire and Rescue Service, stepped up as the keynote speaker. Her excellent and often very funny presentation focused on professionalism and ethics in the fire service, tying in with the theme set for the year.

Ms Millington’s central premise was that diversity, change and the ability to adapt are key for a successful fire service. She applauded the IFE for examining the nature of ethics at the conference and began by looking at how most people aspire to be part of a group or unit to comply with rules laid down by authorities or strong leaders – although it is not always the best way to instil professionalism and ethics in the workplace. “Compliance is not worth it just for compliance sake,” Ms Millington told the audience.

“Our need to belong, our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves often means we join organisations just to fit in,” she said. “But organisations have lots of rule and one of the challenges that applies to the fire sector is that we often want people to have a rule and then stick to it, regardless of whether or not it actually helps the culture at work.

“There may well be a time when people need to stick to that rule. So, on the ground or in certain situations it may well be that compliance with that rule becomes a life-saving survival behaviour. But in other situations it isn’t.”

She said this has an impact on the definition of leadership: “Can I empower my colleagues to challenge me when I’m talking complete rubbish? Otherwise, we’re assuming that any chief fire officer in any organisation is the only person who’s got a brain who can make a decision. In my organisation we have 1,500 people who are capable of making the right decisions when it counts.”

Ms Millington added that regardless of Kent Fire and Rescue Service and all fire services striving for high standards, it is not enough to want compliance around rules and structures that have been set: “I applaud the IFE for raising this subject. How you set up your leadership at every single level in the organisation and how you frame your ethical debate becomes really important. We need to ask: ‘Is it time in the sector to renew our code of conduct, or our code of ethics in terms of how we operate?’ The answer is: ‘Yes’, so long as it isn’t another set of arbitrary rules.”

Her goal is to empower managers to choose what is right from wrong and then apply that in certain circumstances: “We need to have that dialogue because we’re really talking about creating standards and professionalism – and it also raises questions of loyalty. One of the things I’ve said when I became chief is that if you ever find me doing anything wrong, you automatically go to the chairman.

“You need to recognise that in the end the job is to look after the fire and rescue service and the community it serves. It’s my job to make sure that this service delivers the best possible service it can.”

She concluded: “We need to be willing to change, willing to find those appropriate behaviours in terms of how we work with our communities. We need to ensure we’re capable of being services that are outward focused, not stuck on traditions that only serve traditionalism for its own sake; but working towards creating a better society. And if we’re not here to do that, I don’t know what we are here for today. I certainly believe that’s what we’re here to do.”

Implications for Competence - Post-Grenfell

Next on the stage was Neil Gibbins QFSM NDipM FIFireE, Director, GIB Fire Risk Services and former IFE International President, who continued the discussion on ethics, knowledge competence and the assurance processes.

He joined Ms Millington in advocating that processes needed to be modernised for identifying the right people to do the right roles. He then widened the debate to encourage best practice, quality and standards in all areas of society, from the construction industry post Grenfell to the safety of tumble dryers and fridge freezers.

“Something’s gone wrong with the system even wider than buildings,” Mr Gibbins said. “I’ve personally been involved in work looking at product safety recalls; we need to bring together the sector to try to sort out what’s going wrong with tumble dryers and fridge freezers and other things that people are buying and putting in their homes; things that are not working properly.”

He acknowledged that companies were now recalling faulty goods and this was set to continue, but there had been a significant failure rate leading to fires in those devices.”

He then spoke passionately about safety standards and Grenfell. “In 2017 I woke up, switched on the BBC News and couldn’t believe I was looking at something in England. This shouldn’t happen.” Mr Gibbins added that the Hackitt report “for me is absolutely brilliant. (Judith Hackitt) has pointed the finger at so many issues.

“It’s an alert for an urgent need to do something different. Here is the wake-up call that something is now needed to put us back on the right track. “The investigation has strengthened her conviction that there is a need for a radical rethink of the whole system and how it works.”

Mr Gibbins concluded by stressing that incompetence shouldn’t be allowed – ever. “How do we build safety into everyone’s psyche? We need people everywhere who know enough about fire and other safety risks to behave appropriately and be sensible with the challenges of modern technology and modern designs.”

Regulating Fire Safety in Crown Premises

Following this Jeremy Yates, Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate, gave an insight into the working of the Crown Inspectorate, particularly regarding the UK’s prison population.

He told the audience: “The prison population stands at 88,000, which is a modest sized town. Last year, there were 1,027 significant fires with 86 injuries and 35 deaths. So of the 1,027 fires in prisons, 835 of those were cell fires where somebody set fire inside a room, knowing they were locked in.”

Mr Yates said the issue often relates to the patterns of behaviour that are specific to that environment. “People mould themselves into an environment – so in custodial fires in particular, when we investigate fires we see that some of those are there to disrupt the prison regime. You’re also looking at a population that is a typically vulnerable population.”

He added that given the difficulties in security and control and as these buildings are dispersed over a wide area, often there’s a lack of expertise among the fire and rescue services to deal with these fires. This is further complicated by the fact that each crown building normally has other private sector organisations operating within them.

“One of the reasons why we get so much deliberate fire setting in comparison with buildings in other sectors is because crown buildings are where the state interacts with the citizen and also confronts them.”

As a result of its recent inspections, Mr Yates said the Inspectorate had created a document called Prison Fire Safety Expectations, which is an inspection standard and is recognised by the courts. It is also a bespoke fire safety standard for residential accommodation.

“The important thing here is that the principles we developed have now been adopted by the Prison Service and written into their own guidance.”

Women in Engineering: How does fire compare?

Finally, Kristen Salzer-Frost, lecturer in Fire Engineering at Glasgow Caledonian University, gave a presentation on the role of women in the fire sector. Predictably, current statistics do not bode well for women and fire engineering.

Ms Salzer-Frost said that the percentage of women in the engineering workforce had not improved recently compared to other sectors. “If you look at medicine, they have a much better balance, as is also the case in law. But engineering just seems to be really lagging behind.

“When it comes to the board of directors. I’m the first woman to be elected to the board of directors. It was 100 years of the Institution of Fire Engineers before any woman was elected to the board of directors.”

But she said there is cause for optimism. “Four out of the 15 speakers at this year’s conference are women. So that’s over 25 per cent. This is the highest percentage that we’ve had. So that’s a really good sign and it shows I think that people are interested in addressing this.”

Ms Salzer-Frost believed there are two major reasons why we need to address this issue; firstly there is a big skill shortage in engineering in general, but particularly in fire engineering. “If we’re losing all these women disproportionately, how many of them could have been retained to help deal with the skills shortage?

“Possibly, more importantly, if we’re thinking in terms of professionalism and ethics, we need that diversity of perspective. By not having it we are losing specific knowledge and experience and that leads to the age-old problem of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’

“If we’re going to move on with our profession and foresee problems and save lives, then we need that diversity of perspective to see where these issues are and to bring different ideas to the table of how you might be able to solve these problems.”

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