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Fireside Chat with Paul Fuller - CFO
Paul Fuller joined the Fire Service in 1978 and became Chief Fire Officer (CFO)at Bedfordshire and Luton in 2002. He has served on a number of national bodies including Chair of CFOA Services Limited Chair of Fire Sector Federation, CFOA past President and is currently Chair of Trustees for the national charity the Children’s Burns Trust and Chair of the Trustees of the Fire Fighters Charity and Chair of Fire Sport UK.
A member of local charities and groups as well as being a committee member for the Fire Service Parliamentary Scheme.
Paul was made a Freeman of the City of London in 2012, awarded the Queens Fire Service Medal for exemplary service in 2008 and made Commander of the British Empire by her Majesty in the 2016 New Year’s Honours, appointed a Deputy Lieutenant in 2017 and made Member of St John in 2018.
How have you been affected by COVID-19?
I think everyone’s been affected in some way or other, we don’t enjoy having to restrict our activities, not doing the things or seeing the people we want to see. I think the service has stepped up and done work which, 18 months, 12 months ago, you wouldn’t have imagined.
Firefighters and all of our staff have tried to provide whatever the community needed. I think the most significant changes to our ways of working are working from home and it probably did in a few weeks, what we have been trying to do for years.
We have had to learn completely new ways to maintain relationships which we use in the community. I think in some ways it’s been the biggest event. When I look back over all those years at all the different attempts to revolutionise the fire service, it probably is up there isn’t it? It’s given us a new narrative about what the fire service is about, potentially, and it would be awful to squander the opportunity that comes out of such misfortune.
The quote ‘Necessity is the Mother of invention’ is absolutely true. I think, it will come up later on, I’m a bit of a late baby boomer, so my attitude is just to get on with it. You almost think, why is there so much politics around it? We get fascinated by someone who does the wrong thing and spend hundreds of column inches reporting the minute detail we’re fascinated by tiny examples of people doing the wrong thing, rather than trying to focus on leading the right things and when you do that you give an excuse for everyone to do the same.
- Do you have any pets?
Yes, we have a little family dog, a cocker-poo called Flo, it’s supposed to be my daughter’s dog but I think it’s my daughter’s dog for hugging and it’s my wife’s dog for feeding, taking to the vets and taking on walks. We thought it’d be a good idea for a child to have a pet to learn about how to care for it and those sorts of things, but, as I say, largely as a playmate for her and it’s my wife that looks after it. I’m not really a cat or a dog person, but my wife had dogs all her life so it is I think, really more hers than anyones!
- What’s your favourite movie of all time?
Yes, this is quite a struggle because there are so many fantastic movies aren’t there? Some inspirational and some just really good entertainment movies that take you out of yourself. I think I’m going to opt for the Lord of the Rings trilogy because, when my oldest children were young there was no film then, it was just a book, a massive book. Tolkien’s original and I spent many, weeks, each night reading the book to them and it was a wonderful journey for us.
At the end my daughter cried for ages about it and I’ve never known if she was crying because of the end of the book or if it was because the experience had come to an end. Then years later, when the films came out, I went through a similar process with my youngest daughter, through video version rather than print version and so we sat and watched the films over and over again. So, it’s been a great experience, and, of course, in the print version you have to be moved by its depth - so I have to say Lord of The Rings. Whereas the Hobbit trilogy was probably two films too long. Everyone starts with The Hobbit don’t they?, which is a story book and then Tolkien grew it into this whole allegorical tale, so I like The Hobbit, I think the films were well made and they were well acted but they could have compressed it into something perhaps a little bit shorter.
- Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?
Wilful, I had quite a strong work ethic, particularly physically, I always worked hard, I was probably not quite as academically committed as I should have been, particularly in 6th form but with O levels I did quite well. That work ethic came because I was brought up to work hard and one day you might get recognised. Also, as a teenager, I was quite kind and helpful.
- What is your biggest pet peeve/hate?
I think it’s largely remained the same, I’m going to get applause for saying this, because, my pet hate is people who pull out to overtake and try to do so at one mile an hour faster than the car they’re overtaking and refuse to move left. It shows such a crass misunderstanding of how a motorway is designed, just keep trying to move left all the time, it is just so frustrating. You sit there, sitting in traffic, with traffic queuing two miles ahead you can see the car that’s caused it. It’s so frustrating.
- If you could be from any other decade (or era), which would it be and why?
You are obviously moved to go to some ancient time or some future time and probably we think about the past because the older I get the better things used to be! But I think I would say the noughties, I would like to have been from about 2000. The reason for that, if that were the case, I would now just about be on a journey to start doing this all over again. I’d love to do this all over again. I think it’s different now, when I joined, I went onto a watch and they said this job’s never going to be the same again, we’ve had the best of it you joined it at the wrong time. That was over 40 years ago, it’s been brilliant. I talk to young recruits or trainees now as they come into the service and tell them that same story and say it may be different from the career that I have had, but it will be no less rewarding, no less wonderful. So, If I had the chance to do it over again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
- If you weren’t in the fire industry – what would you be doing and why?
Yes, well I am fascinated by the law by the court process and so I think I probably would have liked to do something in law, maybe been a barrister, if I had the brains which probably isn’t the case. I just like the idea of that verbal jousting and the biff and baff I think that would be quite rewarding. In terms of what I might have done, I might have been in the fire service for 35 years and in the military for a few years beforehand and perhaps on reflection, it’s an opportunity I’ve missed. The only point I would make about a short career in the military is that I wouldn’t want to do it if it was on the same ship as Ian Moore.
- What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?
It’s quite eclectic, I did actually have a look at it this morning, but it is quite a collection because I shall listen to something and think I’ll put it on Spotify and then I forget about it. I’m going to say ‘The Rising’ by Bruce Springsteen because that’s about a firefighter dying at 9/11 perhaps not because of the quality of the music but the story it tells. I’ve got some classical music on there, a bit of country, quite a mixture.
At the moment what was playing when I switched it on was Goyte. I’ve also got Africa on there by Toto and the reason it keeps coming on is that last year I climbed Kilimanjaro and everybody in the group downloaded Africa and it just keeps self-presenting and coming back on - it’s actually a lovely reminder of the experience. All in all it is a mixed genre.
- If you could have any three people (dead or alive) over for dinner – who would they be?
Bill Bryson who wrote a short history of almost everything. Just because as a dinner party guest he’d know so much about everything he’d be really absorbing and interesting. I’ve listened to his audiobook and I would keep going back on it and think to myself “Is that true? Is that how much the Earth weighs? That’s amazing”. So, I was fascinated by facts and how they actually went about weighing the Earth among many other things.
Lord Nelson, a personal leadership favourite of mine. If we could just get a little bit of that audacity and leadership to rub off, how we would move the world forward, I think that would be interesting. I’d like to ask him “Was that really true what happened in Trafalgar? Did that really happen? Or was it luck?”
Rosa Parks, who in a spontaneous moment of defiance, changed the world. A very, ordinary lady, who just wanted to go home on the bus.
Wouldn’t it be great to know that after all those years of what effectively was apartheid (that was known as segregation) what made her think about getting on a bus and just sitting on a seat that was for whites only and just saying ‘I’m not moving’ was it just tired feet, or was it a conscious decision that this is going to be the spark that ignites the flame. It would be interesting to unpack that. As it would be with the other two in their own experiences.
- What two things would you take to a Desert Island?
Obviously, a fire engine, because with a Fire Engine you can do just about anything. It’s got so much fantastic kit on it and can hold 400 gallons of water. A bottomless portion of chicken tikka vindaloo.
- Name a book, movie or tv show that has positively shaped you and why?
I think the book would be ‘The Empty Raincoat’ by Professor Charles Handy. It’s quite an old book now, about 30 years old. It talks about Social Paradox and change and it’s very powerful and influential. There are some straight forward observations about how organisations think. He uses an analogy for change in the book which some people find a bit alarming. He talks about the way to boil a frog. If you wanted to boil a frog and you boiled the water, (this is the change element) you then put the frog into it, the frog is so fast to react to hot water, he would jump out and run away. That’s what we do in organisations we say we’ve got this brilliant change programme; we’re going to do it now, everybody get onboard and of course all the frogs jump out the way because they sense change. The way to boil a frog is to put it into cold water and turn the heat on because by the time the frog realises that the water has become hot, it’s too late for it to react.
There are lots and lots of examples in that book, just about how we think about organisations. I came across it many years ago when I was doing an MSC in Human Resources Management and some of the thinking has stood me in pretty good stead.
Strangely some people believe that we would deal differently in our professional life than we would with the people we deal with personally. But actually, it’s the same, people are motivated by the same things. They want to be handled in the same way. Although we would think of our family lives as being different from work. It’s a relationship
- If you had a spirit animal, what would it be and why?
An eagle because it can fly and it’s got such a wide view and it can see all the opportunities.
- What is the best gift you’ve ever received?
It was a very uninspiring plastic biro and it was over 42 years ago. I sat in the training centre in the bowels of the then West Midlands Fire Service Headquarters, with 20 other people who were just starting the recruit course. In front of me were a whole lot of different pieces of paper, welfare, union etc. All the things you were asked to sign. I came across one and it said it was an authority for West Midlands Fire Service to deduct 11.5% from my salary, which at that time, was about £84 a fortnight. So, I thought, that’s a lot. In my characteristically questioning nature, I put up my hand and said to the Divisional officer “Do I really want to sign this?” The Divisional Officer who was an ex-Royal Marine, walked over and he put on top of the piece of paper, a very uninspiring biro. He said “That pen is my gift to you, pick it up and sign”. Of course, what I was signing, I came to understand, was my membership of a pension scheme. That put me and my family in a very good place. So that pen was the best gift and I only owned it for few moments.
- What's your favourite thing in your closet right now?
I’m not fascinated by clothes. T-shirt and shorts I should think.
- If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I’ve thought that wouldn’t it be great to fly. Fly around like Superman and just go to Newcastle or something and then fly all the way back. The thrill of it.
- What's the best piece of advice you've received?
The best piece of advice I had was quite astonishing, because of the person it came from and it was from my Dad. Some people who read this will know that my Dad was in the Fire Service. I had quite a strict upbringing, I was taught I had to work hard and if you’re lucky you might get a pension at the end of it. So, he was very focused on our effort and endurance really. Stick at it and get on with it. The piece of advice he gave me, this is why it was so astonishing, was that if you wake up for the 4th day and think ‘I really don’t want to do this’, then simply ‘don’t’, ‘change the narrative and do something else’ as you’ve only got one life’.
I realised later in life that he actually did that on a couple of occasions, he had the courage to do it. I don’t think many people realise that about him, but it was a really important piece of advice. Although, I’ve been fortunate and have never been in that position it has given me the opportunity to stop and think ‘Am I in that position now that my Dad told me about?’ - It’s been a very valuable piece of information. It adds value to your life and puts things into perspective.
As I say, it’s astonishing because it came from this man who just drove us to do well. There are times in your life when you think ‘Do I still want to do this?’ or ‘Have things become so awful, do I hate it so much that I want to do something else?’ When you apply that technique and think ‘Actually no, in my heart I still love it’. But I’m sure many people do go to that place and I know that he did it, not in his Fire Service career, in his previous role. I’ve passed that advice onto many people that have been confused or unhappy.
- What time did you get to work this morning?
At about 9 o’clock am.
- What does your usual day look like?
Usually start at 9, normally its lots of meetings, even more so now because we do it virtually, so we don’t really get the luxury of a break while you travel. So, lots of meetings, lots of emails. The best days are discussing things with staff seeing what they’re up to. Getting out on operations if the rare opportunity arises. Spending quite a bit of time responding to governance and measuring performance and planning. We consciously talk about dealing with outside organisations, such as the FIA, I’m about 70% externally focused if that external focus also takes into account the locality, not just national bodies. So, in terms of managing the external perception of the service, it’s probably quite high. I tend to dip into things internally if I’m dealing with a grievance or a disciplinary appeal, or hearing something someone’s upset or displeased or happy about.
Today I’m doing this external interview with you. Then I’ve got an internal piece of work which is an end of year video with the staff. A couple of other meetings to do with significant issues which are a combination of both internal and external. So on the average day it’s about 70/30% external. The pandemic has changed the point of view of re-defining our organisational leadership because our leadership is quite visual. We’re an operational emergency service, first and foremost, and so our leadership with the community and the organisation has to be quite visual.
We can’t do that now. People are encouraged to work from home. That’s quite a strange thing. We’ve had to find a new balance to maintain our leadership in which everybody understands our mission, our values and they’re all here in their own way trying to do the same thing. The allegory being, when, Kennedy visited the Space Centre, he spoke to everyone on the tour, it was a very high cost, pressure environment, everybody wanted to be the first to get a man on the moon and beat the Russians. He went round and spoke to astronauts asked them what they were motivated by- we need to be the first nation to get a man on the moon. He spoke to scientists who were inventing new things and they didn’t know the answers to what they were trying to do but they said they were going to be the first nation to get a man on the moon. When he left, he walked past a janitor and he said “This floor, it’s immaculate, when I entered the building this morning, you were mopping this floor, this afternoon, you’re mopping this floor and it shines like glass. Why do you do that?” and the janitor said “Mr President, we’re going to be the first nation to put a man on the moon”. That’s the message about everybody’s contribution being important and in our own context, it’s saving lives of the people out there in our community.
So, we’ve had to change that leadership narrative a little bit as we have to lead people’s safety now as well. But what we have learnt is, people have stepped up whatever their role, they’ve basically said they will do something else. They’ve been brilliant.
What’s going to stay that you’ve learnt or what might go back to normal?
We have invested quite a lot in working with staff with consultants and other partners as well to trying to think differently so that we create a new normal, rather than going back to the old normal. What we’ve achieved in a few weeks, we’ve been trying to achieve over many years. Certainly, in terms of digitalisation and working from home and all that stuff. We’ve bought forward money to buy laptops and the things that people need. That was solely motivated by the Pandemic. How awful it would be to squander the opportunities that gives us is in 2021.
I think it’s catching that new way of thinking, innovating and perhaps being less fascinated by process and more fascinated by outcome. Lets’ just get it done. Do the right thing. I think that during the Pandemic people were driven by wanting to help because fire service people whether they are firefighters or support staff, or indeed, members of the FIA, generally do what they do in the belief that it’s going to help someone. The first reaction is to externalize and say “What can we do to help?” But they have the additional layer of having to think “Actually I need to make sure my family and I are safe and I need to operate in an appropriate way”.
I think the seriousness of the emergency made people much more accepting of the changes that they were needing to make, even to the point, some of them will never go back to how we were before. Over the decades, we’ve written mountains of policy and procedure, countless hours of discussion to agree with all the staff and representatives. It’s quite detailed and it’s a public sector ailment. But what we’ve proven is we can go from ideas to implementation really fast, so why don’t we do that all the time? Ask managers and individuals, to just do the right thing as long as you believe you’re doing the right thing, of course. People are going to make mistakes, but if you believe you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons then it probably is. So, I think we’ve got an opportunity to make our organisations much more effective, efficient and streamlined.
I don’t know quite how it’s going to land later in the year, but it would be an absolute travesty if we didn’t take advantage of that opportunity in some way.
- What makes you excited about the future of this industry?
This is all about digital capability. There’s a thing called 999Eye and another one called GoodSam, its similar technology. One is based on mobile phones and the other one based on street camera technology or probably both. This will revolutionise the way that we deal with an operational incident. A few months ago, we had a fire in a shop in Bedford, it was a fast food take away and I was looking at my phone through this app and a drone was flying around the building and the camera on the drone was looking straight down through the top of the building and I could see the breathing apparatus crew at work and I was a hundred miles away. That technology changes the way we think about how we command an incident. If you take it another step further. Why would we send an officer to an incident? When we can send them into Fire Control and they can see everything that’s going on and they can make mobilisation decisions in Fire Control rather than waiting for resources to get to the scene. That would be achievable just because we can ping a message to the callers mobile phone and ask them to open the app and hold it up so we can see what they can see in Fire Control.
If you took that even further when someone has fallen over at the side of the road or has been in a car accident then a passer-by can just hold that app on the person and show the consultant in A&E what they are seeing and ask what needs to be done to save this casualty. So, it’s going to revolutionise the way the world operates. Also, it’s for the safety of operational crews, earlier we talked about superpowers what about foresight and what a wonderful superpower that would be. If you’re in a breathing apparatus crew fighting your way through a hazardous environment some foresight would have been given to you by a heads-up display from that sort of application that would be pretty valuable in keeping people safe. It was only a few years ago we said ‘wouldn’t it be great if we had a camera at the top of the control unit so that we could take a picture from the scene and send it to fire control?’. How much we’ve advanced in that time.
A few years ago, we were talking about more powerful and more efficient machines of some sort, perhaps robots that would fight fire for us. We’ve gone on from that because technology has given us so much information that we can think about it in a different way and a safer way of doing things.
Regarding making Bedfordshire Fire Service more innovative and accepting of new technologies, I pride my service on being innovative because we do spend quite a lot on fire-fighting innovations, we know some products that others have gone for and we haven’t. I try to encourage people just to have ideas. Recently as part of our Covid Recovery group, we tried to make people think differently. Even separating meetings or parts of meetings so the first part of the meeting is all about expanding ideas, it doesn’t matter how ridiculous they are, if something comes into your head, put it on the table, don’t comment on it, and just write it down.
The second part of the meeting is about reduction, so that’s when you open up a discussion and say well that’s not going to fly, let’s try and unpack that one a little bit. The danger is, that most meetings do both things at the same time. So, one person would say “I’ve had this idea, why don’t we buy a submarine?” and another person will say “Well we tried that in 1974 and what a daft idea that turned out to be” and completely dismiss the idea. Or “we’ve done it before and it doesn’t work”. “There isn’t the money”.
That is making people a bit more innovative because they feel free to take some personal risk by putting something out there. We see better results by separating those issues, sometimes it’s just about the chairing of meetings, where you say no, let’s not talk about the implications of that now let’s just get the ideas on the table and the suggestions.
People are very good at shutting you down because they will say “Oh no we’ve tried that before” or “That will never work, they won’t go for that” and then participants don’t want to say anything else, in case they’ll be shut up again. So, we lose all that innovative thinking. It is important to do the reduction because what you don’t want to do is end up in ridiculous chaos whereby, everyone is living from one moment to the next with the next crazy idea, so you do have to have some reductive control of it. But what we try not to do is do it all at the same time. There are techniques for that.
- What do you like about the fire industry?
I think it’s all about the service. It’s all about helping to try to create a safer natural and built environment. Everybody is trying to do their little bit to make the world safer and better. Also, to learn from terrible things that have happened over the years trying to say “Let’s never let this happen again, let’s get this right”. So, I just like the sense of doing something worthwhile. It’s also, personally, a very collegial environment. The whole fire sector is a friendly place and you have a sense of belonging to it.
- How does your work and family life come together?
Well, they’re sort of completely intertwined. It’s so difficult to separate them. I do try to have family time and separately work time. But, you know, everyone’s the same now, you have your work in your pocket all the time, so even when you’re walking or on the beach or where ever your work is never far away. I work a continuous duty system as well so I’m always on call that intertwines it as well, so you have to pack life around it and it around life. There’s also a really strange thing about the Fire service. I’m sure it’s true in policing and other services, in the public people think that because you’re a firefighter, or you’re in the fire service that you’re completely fascinated by everything to do with the fire service.
I had some neighbour’s, a lovely couple, where the lady used to, every Christmas buy me something and say to me “I saw this and thought of you” and she’d give me a little fire engine or a poem about the fire service or a picture. I let this go for quite a long time, it didn’t annoy me, I just thought it was funny that people do that. They ran a bathroom installation advisory and fitting service, so one year I bought a bath plug and I said “You are fascinated by baths, you work in the bathroom industry so I bought you this because I saw this and thought of you” and she said “What?” and I said “It’s what you do to me every year”. She took it well. But that’s what it’s like. People don’t allow you not to be a firefighter.
There was this one time I was coming back on an aeroplane from the Maldives and we had hopped from the Maldives from Abu Dhabi and we’d been in the air for 5 minutes and then a great fireball came all the way down the side of the aircraft because one of the engines blew out. As we were looking out of the window people asked me “What do we do?” and I said, “Well I don’t know, I was sick on my wing-walking course…. your best bet is to pray”. People won’t let you forget that you’re a firefighter or in the fire service. I’m sure that’s it’s true in the whole industry. I’m sure that people who are part of the FIA get fire-related gifts and memorabilia. In a way, it’s nice because, the public are fascinated by the fire service, they adore the fire service and we wouldn’t want them to stop doing that.
My point being, as soon as you say to somebody you’re in the Fire service that is part of nearly every conversation you have. You cannot then extract your personal life from your work life.
- What matters most to you?
Obviously, I’m going to say family. What also matters is trying to do the right thing. Sometimes the right thing isn’t the popular thing, or the easiest thing. But I think, having the ability to see things how they truly are and the courage to make them how they ought to be is the right thing. Also, I’m entrusted in two charities. That’s quite important to me as well because of the people they look after and there’s the sense of service as well.
- What would you tell yourself at the age of 21?
This is really out there. When I was on my Brigade Command course, I was about 37, and as part of the visit to the fire services in Poland, I had the opportunity to go to Auschwitz and if I was 21 I’d say to myself go sooner, understand the depths to which humanity can sink and do everything you can to prevent it.
It’s a very humbling experience that has stayed with me, in-printed on me and I came away with the impression that as part of our further education, our sixth form, technical colleges and university, everybody should be made to go there.
I visited there with quite a few lively Brigade Command Course students, with a lot of banter but we drove back in silence. Until one person said “Thank goodness that was then” and about 5 of us said “It’s now as well, it’s all over the world, it’s happening now” and it is just the horror of it. Not so much the physical horror, that’s bad enough. But the horror of what we are capable of is just shocking. I think everyone should be made to go there. This is not about a particular race, it’s not about a particular country, it happens all over the world.
- What motivates you?
It’s really about the satisfaction that comes from doing something worthwhile and co-incidentally, worthwhile normally means helping someone else.
- Where do you want to be in 5 years?
I’d like to still be working supporting the Fire sector in some way. Fire services is in my blood really. I recently went, last year to a retirement function for a friend of mine who was a Chief Constable here. They kept coming up with this phrase to express his life-long commitment to policing and they kept saying about how he bled blue and I thought I love that analogy. I’m going to use that. I came back here and said we have to have this bleeding blue thing, but obviously blue is police so what about bleeding red! My deputy said everyone does …. That’s blood!! Somehow, I was trying to capture this notion of having the purpose of an organisation in your very veins. So, of course I would like to stay in this sector and I am open to offers. Contact Paul Fuller here
- Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?
For many years the FIA has been leading the way stating that we need people who are competent to manage our built environment. On one level, the work they do to drive and prove competency and accreditation is really important. But more than that they are a collegial group of 900 organisations that all come together with a single purpose of trying to make our built environment better.
When you look at our built environment, although we have had some terrible disasters, actually the vast majority of it doesn’t go wrong. So, it’s a very important focus and without that glue you wouldn’t have that collegial thing we were talking about. The FIA is important for helping to advance technologically, the standards, raising competency levels and much more. Beyond that it is made up of good people, who are generally well- motivated and always willing to help. We talked earlier on about organisations being welcoming. I’ve always found that is true with the FIA.
- What do you want to say to the readers?
I’d like to thank The FIA for everything you do and for your support of the Fire Rescue Service but more importantly for the work you all do to make the built environment safer. Thank you for the opportunities that we have to work together and long may that continue. On a really cheeky point, I am entrusted in two charities. One of them is The Children’s Burns Trust. There are about 15 children, under 5, every day, in this country, hospitalised because of burns and scalds. The Children’s Burns Trust tries to prevent that by providing information education and support to families and rehabilitation as well. The last year has been extremely difficult for us and the charity is in real danger. So, if anybody wants to help, I’d be very appreciative of discussion. Read More: https://www.cbtrust.org.uk/
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*All answers given are not reflective of the FIA views and thoughts and are that of the individual who was interviewed.
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