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Fireside Chat with Robert Thilthorpe.
I am Robert Thilthorpe, I’m one of the Technical Managers at the FIA. Before I joined FIA in 2002. I was a committee manager at BSI responsible for most of the active fire protection committees. I’m a Chemist by training therefore structured and analytical in what I do and also why I’m a good cook as chemistry (Organic Chemistry) is just cooking you can’t eat. Before BSI I worked for the Zinc and Lead Development Associations so have a history with trade associations and I still can’t walk past a piece of galvanised steel without checking the quality. When I left ZDA the plan was to join the Met but life took a different turn, however, I still became a police officer just a unpaid one.
How have you been affected by Covid-19?
I’ve only had it once. In terms of work when was I was furloughed by FIA, I went reverted to type and I spent most of 2020 as a police officer in response policing and response investigations. If you didn’t know I’m a Special Chief Inspector at Cambridgeshire Police in charge of our operational Learning Department. Having been policing for 25 years as a “free cop”, when we had the furlough opportunity there was a discussion with myself and Ian and the force, who were looking for support, so it was a win for all and I said by to Fire and went into response policing for nearly a year.
Do you have any pets?
Yes, she’s called Pumpkin and she’s a Lassa Apso Shih Tzu cross who we got from my crew partner in the police.
What’s your favourite movie of all time?
It’s probably a choice between Blade Runner and the Seven Samurai. Blade Runner is an iconic mix of Sci-fi and film noir crime films with a Japanese twist. The Seven Samurai is just the best standing up to the big guys/bullies film ever and the basis of loads of other films including the Magnificent Seven – Yul Brunner/Steve McQueen western.
Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?
Motörhead. it’s one word.
What is your biggest pet peeve/hate?
Criminals. If you notice my choice of film, you see I have an issue with bullies and that’s criminals at the end of the day and why I’m a cop.
If you could be from any other decade (or era), which would it be and why?
Japan in 1600-1800 as it goes back to the time of the Seven Samurai. You’ll see a Asian/Japanese leaning, in addition to the other activities I’m a Martial Artists having studied Aikido and Kenjutsu so those skills fit in nicely in that era, though I’m no Musashi, you’ll have to wait for another instalment of this to find out who he was!
What is your favourite quote and why?
There are two. It’s by Lao Tzu “A journey of ten thousand miles starts with the first step” or the Japanese one “revenge is a dish best served cold”. The first means you’ll never achieve anything if you don’t try and the second means I’m very patient.
If you weren’t in the fire industry – what would you be doing and why?
Police because that’s what I was going to do before I got involved with the fire industry. Although I did want to join the RAF regiment or the RAF Provost, but they didn’t want to commission me.
What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?
Anything coming out of Nashville. Country.
If you could have any three people (dead or alive) over for dinner – who would they be?
Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain and Martina McBride. They can sing and they look good and actually, Martina McBride is a good cook too. So, a meal with my favourite Country stars what more would you want?
What two things would you take to a Desert Island?
A hotel and my iPhone.
Name a book, movie or tv show that has positively shaped you and why?
A book of five rings by Miyamoto Musashi. It’s a Samurai Swordsmanship book and it’s about how you use strategy to defeat an opponent, it’s very heavy on strategy and was adopted by most of the Japanese Corporations in their business strategies and look how successful they are.
If you were animal, what animal would you be and why?
Probably a Great White Shark, nobody’s going to mess with them.
What is the best gift you’ve ever received?
Probably a rather expensive bottle of Sake from my wife – yep, we still have a Japanese theme here.
What's your favourite thing in your closet right now?
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I wouldn’t want one. It’d get in the way. Take teleportation, for instance, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up in a wall. There’s always a downside.
Where’s the most interesting place that you have ever been with the Fire Industry?
Kyoto in Japan, I’m sure you’ve picked on the Japanese theme so far making this answer somewhat unsurprising. I was there for ISO/TC21/SC 8 meetings for gaseous suppression and it ties in with the Japanese thing, there is a strong link to the traditions of Japan in that city. Other than that, Singapore because I was born there. I didn’t do that with the fire industry, that was separate from work.
What's the best piece of advice you've received?
From John Northey about chairing committees which was basically to start the meeting, give them an idea, let them chew it over for the rest of the meeting and they’ll come back, agree and more importantly think it was their idea in the first place.
What time did you get to work this morning?
08.15 am. It’s a simple walk.
What does your usual day look like?
I get up and fire up two computers one is for the FIA and one is for Cambridgeshire Police. I take the dog for a walk and then get on with the meetings. As someone asked me once what do you do, my reply “I go to meetings” “and then what” No I go to meetings. We (FIA) once calculated I was a member of over 100 committees – Standards, FIA, Government.
How does your work and family life come together?
Fine, before the pandemic kicked off I was travelling a lot and if it’s abroad and there’s an opportunity for my wife to come with me then we tie holidays in with those sometimes. That’s really how it works. The work gives us the opportunity to do the other stuff.
What makes you excited about the future of this industry?
It’s probably the change, it’s people suddenly realising that because you did it that way, it’s not the right way and that is particularly in areas such as on fire extinguishing innovation and it starting to kick in with fire where fire’s been traditionally “Well that’s the way we’ve done it and new ideas are not a good idea”. Then finding that new is a good idea and it’s how you use those new ideas.
What does the fire industry need?
I suppose it needs to consider why it’s there. It sometimes considers if there’s anything important and it’s getting that importance through to other people, because no matter what, when you’re building, fire is always the last thing people think of. Fire is the last thing that happens to them and then it’s tragic and then you get all the incidents and again, it needs to be a bit more forward-thinking. I was always told by somebody who used to know Lesley Heaviside, who used to work at Tyco Wormald and that was that the way that we work in fire, particularly with legislation is we wait for something bad to happen, then there will be a meeting commissioned by some good and worthy person and then do legislation, until the next time something happens. Then we’ll repeat the process and have another commission, rather than thinking proactively and think about it more and think about what it means to people so that it will work better and people will understand it. But fire is just one of those things that are there, people don’t understand it, so they think the only people involved in fire is the Fire Brigade. When you tell someone that you work in fire they ask you if you’re a fireman and you then tell them no, it’s that line of thought of people in that they don’t understand fire, but as we’re moving forwards with things like lithium iron batteries, people are understanding fire more because they suddenly notice it when their iPad goes up with a really big bang. Then they start realising that fire is a bit more important to them.
What do you like about the fire industry?
Mostly the people, depending on which area you’re coming from, you’ve got the large companies where people have worked their way through and then you’ve got the new people coming in that are coming in from a different angle. So, it’s generally the people. It’s very rare for somebody who is a part-time cop because normally we don’t like people.
What matters most to you?
Integrity, it’s something that applies to both jobs, you’re doing something for the right reason and not because you think you’re going to gain something out of it, so always honesty and integrity.
What would you tell yourself at the age of 21?
Carry on, you’re doing fine, PS there’ll be this little company called Zoom around 2019 – buy some shares.
What motivates you?
Learning and new things and seeing what’s different and that’s one of the things that you can relate to it in fire, you do get new things, things change and happen, then you go back to policing where nothing’s the same, it’s always changing and you’re always adapting. It’s that ability to say ok, that didn’t work so we’ll move on and do the next thing to see if that’s going to work. A bit like doing fire testing, so rather than thinking it’s the end of the world and it hasn’t gone the right way, it’s adapting and learning. Nobody ever learnt anything without making mistakes. Sometimes you find that people are too worried about making mistakes. It depends on how that mistake goes, if it’s going to go bang then it’s probably a big mistake but as long as you can do it in the right way then it’s going to be good, so always carry-on learning.
Where do you want to be in 5 years?
I’d like to be retired but that’s probably not going to happen. Considering my other job and all the regular officers that I started off working with have retired.
Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?
What FIA has, since I joined it when it was BFPSA and FETA is it’s been very supportive of the staff, it’s always looked after the staff in whatever guise we’ve been in. For the industry, it’s a single point of contact but again, it’s on those values of doing things right and properly and it doesn’t try and influence for the wrong reasons it ensures things are done the right way and it’s that, that the FIA provides for the industry. They know this, it’s for the members who have all got commercial interests, but the FIA’s interests have to cover everybody’s, so we’re always going to have to take not that middle line, we may have to take either the right or left line depending on where it leads us and what we need to do, but we’re there to do that. That’s the point and as we move on and out and consider further afield, it’s what we need to do.
A long time ago when we were BFPSA we went through a process in the technical team of looking at how you move forward and adopting what Honda did and they used to have this thing called big hairy audacious goals. So, basically what the technical team at the time said was “Well, we just want to be the team that people go to no matter where in the world they are, so that’s not NFPA, not FPA but, FIA.” It is the point of contact of where that building professionalism and ability, that if there is an issue surrounding a technical question around fire then we’re not the total experts but we know the answers or we know who to point you in the right direction of so you can go and ask them.
What do you want to say to the readers?
If you’re not a member of the FIA then please do join the FIA. Look at what you want to do, if you’ve got a new product, look at how you want to bring it to market and look at how you would like to be supported. If you’re in one of the traditional industries, look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and always think about, at the end of the day, whilst you’re there to make a profit but also look at it from the perspective of ‘Is your profit made on the basis that you’re going to help someone?’
At the end of the day, what we do is to help other people, not necessarily just ourselves. It’s life safety.