02 September 2019 by David Smith, FIA, FIRESA Secretary


The late 1960s television series The Prisoner features a British intelligence agent played by Patrick McGoohan who is imprisoned in a mysterious coastal village. The imprisoned ‘Number Six’ asks his interrogator ‘Number Two’ what he wants, to be told simply ‘information…information…information’. Number Six responds ‘you won’t get it’ to which Number Two replies ‘by hook or by crook, we will’.

The highly inventive series may be seen as a battle between individualism as represented by the beleaguered Number Six and the collectivism of Number Two and others in the village as well as depicting a search for the truth. And it had a huge white balloon in it that acted as a security guard that would flatten anyone trying to escape.

Trade associations act very much on the principle of collectivism which emphasises cohesion among otherwise individual units and prioritises the group over the self, with common values and goals uppermost in the aims of the collective. This applies to the FIA as it surely does to other organisations such as the Association for the Preservation of the Coelacanth, the Belgian Boomerang Association, the Association for Dressings and Sauces and the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society [all of these really exist]. And we engage in the perpetual search for information that informs our membership and assists in their journey through the smouldering labyrinth of fire protection.

Peter Cook’s comedic character E L Wisty once opined ‘you’ve got four miles of tubing in your stomach’ which is something of an exaggeration as the alimentary canal is actually about 25 feet long or as we say these days, 8 metres. Wisty also noted rather more accurately that ‘if a giraffe could leap pound for pound as high as a grasshopper, they’d avoid a lot of trouble’.

In order to make rational decisions, it’s necessary to analyse facts using critical thinking which then enables us to make judgements whether in relation to business strategy or deciding which sandwich to have from the van when it turns up in the morning. Each stage of the process requires careful evaluation. Do you have the facts at your disposal and if not, where do you get them and when you do have them, are they unbiased and reliable or are they perhaps Trumpian ‘alternative facts’ or even a complete lie sitting as a putrefying nugget in the rocky landscape of the post-truth era?

Only through establishing the facts can we proceed to a reasonable analysis rather than wading through the mire of our own preconceptions. We often base judgements on our personal experience or that information which is selectively offered to us through media sources. Anxious people are actually more likely to be attacked by dogs but leaving that aside, an average of eighteen people in the UK require treatment for dog bites every day and most would say that that would be a higher incidence than say those injured by television sets. In fact, tv-related injuries are much higher [around 25 a day when figures were last recorded over a decade ago] and this gap between perception and reality is caused largely because dog bites are seen as newsworthy while having a tv fall off the wall and land on your foot isn’t. We then have the ‘availability cascade’ whereby fragments of evidence become self-reinforced and contribute to an exponentially-rising collective belief in something that really is not true. This ‘madness of crowds’ was explored by Charles Mackay in his book of 1841 and the concept remains a key component particularly of populist politics in modern times.

We constantly attempt to determine facts and make value judgements. This week, I’ve been examining the results of the Export Council’s recent workshop on market intelligence in which those present were invited to share experiences in six key target markets, namely Australia, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia and Nigeria. The sharing of non-commercially sensitive information on these countries and covering aspects such as economic conditions, ease of doing business and travel as well as fire-specific regulatory and legislative issues can help our members to formulate their plans to develop their export businesses.

Taking just one example, we learn that Nigeria holds significant potential as a market in which there are over 200 million people, the economy is growing [over 2% GDP growth this year] and BS EN Standards are dominant although there are issues surrounding corruption, personal safety and brand loyalty. What wasn’t picked up on at the time was the Nigerians’ love of board games and the fact that they have more Top 100 Scrabble players than any other nation in the world.  

I’ve also this week been looking at the DIT Report and Accounts for 2018-19 and examining the figures therein. This reveals that net operating expenditure increased by 9% relative to the previous year. This seems encouraging given our probable exit from the EU later this year until you look further into the detail. Staff costs have risen by 20%, not in itself a bad thing, but expenditure on front-line offerings such as trade and investment activity, promotional activities, events and grants have fallen collectively by 27%. So much for the much-vaunted post-Brexit push!

And so we end with another quote from E L Wisty. ‘I've always wanted to be an expert on tadpoles…it’s a wonderful life if you become an experty tadpoleous, as they are known in the trade.’ Well as we’ve seen, you can become knowledgeable about pretty much anything if you seek out the facts. As John Lennon said in ‘Gimme Some Truth’, ‘I've had enough of watching scenes of schizophrenic, ego- centric, paranoiac, prima-donnas’ whatever that means. The Moody Blues put it rather more philosophically on ‘Late Lament’ when they ask ‘but we decide which is right and which is an illusion.’