Here our Fireside Chat with Paul van der Zanden, General Director at Euralarm. This interview touches on Paul's extensive 40 years of experience within the fire and security industry, prioritising safety in life, work and travel and the need for regulation and standardisation with fire safety rules synchronised across Europe.

01 June 2022 by Adam Richardson, General Manager

Fireside Chat with Paul van der Zanden

Intro: My name is Paul van der Zanden, I’m the General Director of Euralarm which is the European association for fire safety and security. After I left school, I worked for 2-3 years in other industries before I started to work in the fire safety and security industry. First, at an installation and services company in the Netherlands and after that I moved to a manufacturer.  Then I moved to Brussels, which is where I still live. I first worked on European level and when I got the opportunity, I moved to the US for a few years which gave me a good view on the global industry. My work for Euralarm as General Director started in 2019, in this role I can use my 40 years’ experience in the industry both on the fire side and the security side.

How have you been affected by Covid-19?  

The world changed for everybody including myself, I used to be out 50% of the time, I live close to Brussels, I took the tram in the morning to Brussels to go to represent Euralarm in meetings with the commission, MEP’s, CCMC and other organisations.  Unfortunately for the last two years I mainly work from my home office. At this moment it is starting to go back to normal, but it still isn’t where it was.  This means we had to change to a different way of working.  Online meetings became the ‘’new normal’’ and we’ve had less personal interaction. That made it more difficult to keep on building on our networks. The working environment has changed.  As Euralarm we have adapted: we have a new IT infrastructure and new tools as well as a new website that enables us to communicate easier and in a better way with the members and stakeholders than we did before Covid.

Personal Questions

Do you have any pets? 

Not anymore. If you travel all the time, then it’s difficult to keep pets. In the past we had dogs, guinea pigs, chickens and rabbits, but after the children grew up and left the house over time the animals left the house also.

What’s your favourite movie of all time?

I have two, one is a movie the other is a series. I’m a big fan of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’. I am also a fan of Faulty Towers, so both have the same actors. It’s interesting because no matter how many times you watch them, every time you watch them, you notice something that you did not see before. The English humour is really very nice.

Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?

Always be busy. I’ve never had a dull moment in my life where I’ve sat still. That’s still the way I work today be it at work, family or hobbies, I’ve done that my whole life.

What is your biggest pet peeve/hate? 

I hate people who disagree with a plan or an idea and don’t have an alternative. You have people who already have many objections before an idea is browsed upon and when you ask them if they have an alternative plan or idea, they say “Oh no, not really”. That’s what I really hate.

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

If I’m honest, I don’t really want to go back in time. I was born in the Netherlands after the last War in Europe; I think this was the right moment. The generations before us had a much harder life, had to work 6 days a week, most of them had no car or telephone and had very few opportunities to explore the world. For my generation it was different, if you look at studying, healthcare, traveling or social services, we had all the options to develop ourselves.

What is your favourite quote and why?

I like the quote from Martin Luther King ‘I have a dream’ the famous speech from 1963. It’s interesting because he had a dream, but everybody has dreams. If you have the right mentality and attitude, you can achieve a lot of your dreams, sometimes it takes a long time, it’s true not all dreams come true but that’s all part of the dream. That’s the way it works in life.

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

Something completely different. Nature has always been very close to me so if I could go back in time, I would have started a career where I could make a contribution to nature, environmental or sustainability areas. In fire safety, we are part of that environmental factor as fire incidents can have a big environmental impact.

What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?’

I don’t have either. I listen to the radio but not really the music stations. If I listen to music, then it’s mainly concerts. I play the clarinet and saxophone myself and with that I prefer to go to live concerts.

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

A few world leaders would fit nicely around my dinner table, not so much to tell what I think they need to do but to understand how they believe their choices and decisions from today will help to the next generations

What two things would you take to a Desert Island?

There are three, because I live in Belgium, the Belgian beer must be on the list. Then I would take my wife and clarinet with me. Someone must listen to your music when you play.

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

When I read books, I generally read books that have something to do with the work that I do. If I read a ‘’normal’’ book I read the first five pages and if it fascinates me, I can finish it in one day. I do not have one specific book or movie that has inspired me.

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

A fly, you can be in places where nobody else can be, a fly can take good care of itself and he is not depending on anyone else.

What is the best gift you’ve ever received?

My children and my wife. They have been life-changing for me, there’s no other gift like that. You can get a car or a house but that’s not comparable, a partner who is your soulmate and children are the best gifts you can get in life.

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

The anniversary calendar, where all the friends and family member’s Birthdays are noted so you can look at it and do not forget when anybody’s. So, if you don’t have one, then you should get one, it really works. 

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

Reach the age of hundred years in good health and keep contributing to society.

Professional Questions

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

Melbourne Australia, I was at a fire responder test centre, they tested safety from basically everything with a fire or safety risk. The one I remember best was the testing of rescue equipment on a brand-new car which was recently introduced on the Australian market. They wanted to ensure their tools were still doing the job on this new type of car, they cracked doors and cut off the roof successfully. They didn’t wait until the first incident to find out if it works or not, that’s what it is all about in our industry.

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

‘’No’’, you have, ‘’yes’’ you can get. It’s a kind of attitude to have and if you reflect on the fire industry when you have a risk and you cannot control it you will go through tests and experiments until you find the best solution to manage the risk.

What time did you get to work this morning?

7 am.

What does your usual day look like?

I start my day by watching the 6 am BBC News, have breakfast and after that my working day starts. Since Covid, the days are more or less the same, you do your emails, you have a few meetings and you fit a break in-between. I try to take an afternoon or early evening walk and when the weather allows it, I do some work in the garden. After dinner, I play a bit of music as it can be hard to relax. I also do some voluntary work for local associations.

How does your work and family life come together?

If your children have left and you only have your spouse at home it becomes easier to manage because you don’t have to worry about getting the children to the tennis club, music lessons and those kinds of things. I believe we have a good balance; my wife still goes to school a few days a week, I work in my home office. We always have breakfast together and often cook together, at the weekends we also spend time with our children.

What makes you excited about the future of this industry?

Moving forwards, the world is changing fast. If you look at the Green Deal and all the challenges that are coming with that, fire safety and the fire risk will change. We have a role as an industry to ensure security and safety is taken seriously and taken into account. Our industry contributes to a society where you can live, work and travel in a safe way in Europe. We still have work to do to ensure that security and life safety are a priority in the different countries. The work we do to limit the impact of fire incidents makes me really excited, our industry must ensure that we can, also in the future, live in a safe and secure environment.

What does the fire industry need?

Regulation, standardisation. Fire safety is not fully included in the European mandate. It would be helpful if the rules were more synchronized. Localisation will still be needed because the risks in the different countries are not the same. If the rules across Europe were more equal and standardised, it could also help our industry to drive innovation.

What do you like about the fire industry?

Making a difference. It’s all about that. We had one of our members from the fire section who said that the job that we have done is ‘’too good’’. On the commercial building side, the number of incidents where people get hurt or killed is minimised, so it looks like it’s not a problem anymore. The fact that it’s not a problem has a reason that goes back fifty or sixty years ago to when the process of fire safety for commercial buildings started.

What matters most to you?

The feeling that you’re safe. I’m cautious using those words, of course, there’s always a risk. Feeling safe is not only applicable to fire, it’s also applicable for security. If you are at home, work or travel, the feeling of safety is important. A lot of people take it as a given and do not realise that a lot of work is done by many stakeholders to achieve this safe environment and our industry can be proud on their contribution to this safe environment.

What would you tell yourself at the age of 21?

You cannot change the past you can only influence the future.

What motivates you?

We can always do things better. That counts within our association, as for FIA, as for Euralarm, we continuously work with our members to see how we can make things better and how we can have more influence in a positive way. Influence is also about the awareness that we create. We want to achieve a safe and secure environment. We’ve achieved a lot but there is always room for improvement and maybe we do have fewer incidents than we did have 50 years ago.  Our goal should be to have no incidents, that motivates me to move forwards.

Where do you want to be in 5 years?

For the next 5 years I feel my place is with Euralarm. We have professionalised our organisation and we’re aware that within our membership community there isn’t always the time to give attention to all the changes that are ongoing within Europe. Together with the professional team, we support the Euralarm members in ensuring that they keep up to date with the changes and where possible, we give our view, influence decisions in such a way that we make our contribution to a safe and secure Europe.

Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?

If you take a wider view and you think of FIA and Euralarm as associations, it is important to learn from each other. I think an association is the best platform to share experiences, thus learning from each other.  We not only share information, but we also take care that the voice of our industry is synchronized and heard, as the FIA does in the UK and Euralarm does this on a European level. The FIA is an important contributor as well locally, as it is on a European level, the FIA is also an important contributor for our Fire, Extinguishing and Service section.

What do you want to say to the readers?

Stay safe and ensure that you make your contribution for a secure and safe society. Be an advocate for fire safety, support our industry to broadcast our message, educate people, share experiences, and share the vision from our industry. Do this for yourself and the people around you so that they feel safe at home, work or when any of you travel.