Here's our Fireside Chat with Chris Downing, Johnson Controls' Global Director of Codes & Standards (Fire Suppression). In this interview, Chris addresses his experience working in the fire industry, as well as the necessity for the profession to become more desirable and well-known in order to attract fresh talent. Discover that if he had a superpower, he would be able to read people's minds.

03 July 2023 by Kirsty Lavell, Marketing Manager


Hello, my name is Chris Downing. I am Director of Codes and Standards for Fire Suppression Products at Johnson Controls. I joined the fire industry over 30 years ago, as a stopgap, but I am still here – and I love it.

How have you been affected by Covid-19?

I've worked from home for years, avoiding webcams. Covid indisputably accelerated the development and widespread use of Teams and Zoom, making virtual meetings the norm. That saves a lot of travel and is far more engaging than just a phone call or email. I am not saying it replaces the need for or value of f2f meetings but is a brilliant complement. Personally too, the lockdown likely saved my son's life by distancing him from a really bad crowd. Covid - whilst tragic - wasn’t all bad.

Personal Questions 

Do you have any pets?

A dog and two cats. I am more of a cat person, my wife loves the dog - more than she does the kids, and certainly more than she does me.

What’s your favourite movie of all time? 
It is a difficult choice, but if I had to pick, it would be Cars - I fondly remember seeing the immense joy it brought to my sons when they were younger.

Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words? 

Curious, enthusiastic, and lively.

What is your biggest pet peeve/hate?  

Poor manners. Manners cost little, but a lack of manners pangs of implied entitlement or superiority.

If you could be from any other decade (or era), which would it be and why? 

History is fascinating, but not long ago we lacked medicine, safe drinking water and so many essentials one can easily forget. I’d rather just read or watch a documentary about that. I was a teenager in the 1980s, a fantastic time. So, born in '69, I will class the 1970s as your different decade, but if that is not allowed, then it is definitely the '80s. There were numerous positives: health; information availability; affordable travel; and most certainly teenage life before helicopter-parenting, the onslaught of social media and the constant oppressive surveillance of mobile phone cameras.

What is your favourite quote and why?

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step", Lao Tzu. I suspect too many are deterred from embarking on new endeavours, overwhelmed by the grand scheme of things. Martin Watson, now FIA Chair but once my direct manager, had a comparable adage: "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!" so there are plenty of variations on the same theme.

If you weren’t in the fire industry – what would you be doing and why?            

My wife thinks I would make a great primary school teacher, I am sure my kids would disagree.

What’s on your Spotify or iTunes? 

A really eclectic mix.  I start the day with Radio 4, often play classical music as background while working, and appreciate various genres. Last night Spotify suggested David Bowie Glastonbury 2000 (Live) which made a long drive fly by. The ‘eighties and ‘nineties rule, simply because of the memories they provoke.

If you could have any three people (dead or alive) over for dinner – who would they be? 

Looking inward, I would choose my father, brother, and late mother to apologize wholeheartedly for my teenage self, realizing that I was far from the person I imagined myself to be - I am certain I presented quite the challenge (“difficult” is a word my father uses)!
If that is not allowed, then perhaps Vladimir Putin, Bruce Lee, and an additional hard nut, just in case Bruce Lee isn't able to do the obvious.

What two luxury things would you take to a Desert Island?

A Kindle loaded with travel stories and biographies, and a toothbrush.

Name a book, movie or tv show that has positively shaped you and why? 

‘Blame My Brain: The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed’ by Nicola Morgan. I was at my wits end, sat next to my son in hospital after another accidental overdose, and this book provided solace, a better perspective and hope.  If you face challenges with your children, it is worth reading.

If you were an animal, what animal would you be and why? 

As I have scuba-dived, so appreciate what it is like to be a fish, it must be a bird – the ability to fly must be truly awesome. That said, I lack the courage or recklessness required to engage in activities like hang gliding/paragliding or skydiving, so fingers crossed for a favourable reincarnation.

What is the best gift you have ever received? 

Being born into a fortunate time, place, and environment, surrounded by a loving family, and receiving invaluable support from remarkable individuals - whether they be relatives, friends, colleagues, or even strangers.
Above all, having truly amazing friends.

What's your favourite thing in your closet right now? 

The many many skeletons – and I hope they remain there!

If you could have one superpower, what would it be? 

If given the ability to read minds, I would want the power to control it with an on/off switch. However, if that is not possible, then the gift of flight would be amazing.

Professional Questions 

Where’s the most interesting place that you have ever been with the Fire Industry? 

Special hazard protection has led me to remarkable locations, ranging from the DCMC “Pindar” beneath MoD Whitehall to the Palace of Westminster, F1 factories, and foreign lands. While exceptional architecture and the allure of exploring the inner workings of factories captivate me, it is ultimately the people I encounter who truly define a place.

What's the best piece of advice you have received? 

Brian Ward was an amazing mentor in my early career – he taught me so much; I think to ‘be genuine: have humility, honesty and integrity’ must be paramount.

What time did you get to work this morning? 

6:45. While I like to think I’m a night owl, in reality I’m more a lark and like to seize the day.  Predominantly working from home means I can start work almost immediately.

What does your usual day look like? 

Wake, shower, coffee. I kickstart my workday by reviewing and prioritising new emails. A typical day has 4 to 5 meetings, a variety of tasks and plenty of reading. I have tried to become a better individual so in 1:1 Teams meetings - time permitting - I try to open or close with a chat about the person, always learning something new, so it is not just the work agenda; that is really enriching.

How does your work and family life come together? 

I am highly motivated when it comes to work. Although my home office is compact, simply stepping through the door mentally transports me to my work mode. Thankfully, my wife is fully supportive of this arrangement. Now that my boys are in their late teens, I can concentrate without interruptions. Back when they were toddlers, they did not grasp the concept that the office door, with my voice behind it, was not intended to be used as a drum.

What makes you excited about the future of this industry? 

We all know the fire industry faces challenges in attracting fresh talent, but the enthusiasm and energy of new recruits provides hope for the future.  I have been fortunate to have had exceptional managers and mentors, so now willingly mentor others. The fresh perspectives, vigour, and innovative ideas of newcomers, interns, and the next generation is inspiring; they can think and do of what we cannot even dream.

What does the fire industry need? 

Firstly, it is crucial to make the fire industry more appealing and increase its visibility to attract new talent.
Promoting diversity is also essential for the industry's growth and success. As the historical pigeonholing of individuals - which was prevalent in my generation - diminishes over time, then today's equality mindset will become innate.

The industry will naturally benefit from the enrichment that diversity brings as well as be adequately resourced.

Secondly, we have seen some horrendous disasters and it is disheartening to observe the slow pace of legislative change and avoiding repeats. That needs to improve.

What do you like about the fire industry? 

It is the people that make a difference. The fire industry attracts exceptional characters, due to the powerful sense of purpose behind our work. While other industries surely also have some good people, the fire industry stands out in this regard.

What matters most to you? 

Health and happiness, both mine and of others. Finding purpose, experiencing a sense of accomplishment, and similar factors contribute to my happiness. I genuinely hope that everyone else can find the same fulfilment and happiness in their lives.

What would you tell yourself at the age of 21? 

“Say ‘yes’ more often and be less apprehensive.”  I tend to overthink things. In the past I am sure I missed certain opportunities I should have embraced, despite being somewhat reckless in my youth.

What motivates you? 

Belbin's assessment portrays me as relatively well balanced, but more a "completer finisher." I certainly get satisfaction in completing and delivering any task or project, ensuring that the outcome is something to be proud of.

Where do you want to be in 5 years? 

I have been in my current role for slightly over a year now, there is plenty more to absorb and translate into meaningful contribution that can lead to positive outcomes. That will work me hard for at least three years.

Beyond that? The anticipation of the unknown - what lies ahead - energizes me.

As my current responsibilities will invariably shift from full-time implementation to part-time maintenance, I am enthusiastic to explore this unknown – the additional possibilities, and to embrace new challenges.

Why is the FIA important to you and the industry? 
When I first participated the BFPSA (now FIA), I feared I was stepping into the lion's den. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the warm reception and the efforts made by the group to involve me, offer context, and enhance my understanding. I have gained valuable knowledge from this experience and proactively contribute to the continuous evolution fostered by the FIA, constantly striving to enhance fire safety. I am inspired to follow in the footsteps of those who welcomed me by embracing newcomers, encouraging their participation, and sharing knowledge for the greater benefit.

What do you want to say to the readers? 

By reading this, I presume you are already part of the FIA. Do not settle for being a passive member. Active participation not only offers you valuable learning opportunities but also allows you to contribute your experiences, insights, and perspective to benefit the industry. Get involved and take part!