Here is a write up of our Fireside Chat with Peter Holland, Chief Inspector at Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate UK. This interview touches on the once in a lifetime opportunity to transform fire safety for the better, where the most interesting place Peter has visited in his 49-year career and how reducing the unnecessary loss of life is a huge motivator.

09 November 2021 by Adam Richardson, General Manager

 Fireside Chat with Peter Holland

Intro: My name’s Peter Holland.  I joined the fire service in Bristol in 1972 and I served around the country in Cheshire, West Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire, Bedfordshire and back to Lancashire as Chief, I was chief at Bedfordshire as well.  So, I was a Chief for 17 years in total, I retired in 2012 and became the Government’s Chief Fire Rescue Advisor (CFRA) in Communities and Local Government (CLG) as it was until we joined the Home Office in 2016. The Home Office decided that they didn’t need a CFRA probably because they didn’t have a similar role for the Police.  I already had responsibility for the Crown Premises Inspectors so when the CFRA role went I became their Chief Inspector in November 2017.

 I’ve been President of the Chief Fire Officers Association, which morphed into the National Fire Chief’s Council.  I’ve been the International President of the Institution of Fire Engineers and heavily involved with that professional body for a very long time and I’ve been on the Board for almost 28 years with a break of a couple of years. I’m currently the Vice Chair.  We’ve just taken on a whole new impetus on the back of Grenfell as you are probably aware.  So now onto my current role as Chief Inspector of the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate.  We’ve got responsibility under the Fire Safety Order 2005 for fire safety enforcement in 16,000 premises, which are on 10,000 sites, some of them have multi buildings on sites.  We have the same responsibility that local fire services have for ensuring fire safety is regulated properly across that estate.  The group that I work in at the Home Office is the Fire Directorate, we’re part of the Public Safety Group from the 1st of April this year. It is about doing joined up initiatives and police and fire do work a lot together particularly on preventative activity. 

  • How have you been affected by COVID-19?

Well, personally, not at all, my wife and I have been double vaccinated now like all old people!  However we’ve had quite an issue within the family.  My daughter and her four children have all had it in varying degrees, thankfully none of them have been hospitalised, but pretty close to it.  Also, another Grandaughter picked it up but we’re all good now, as it happens, albeit one of my Grandsons has picked it up for a second time, he tested positive and it made him bed bound for a couple of days, so the poor lads struggled with that.  We’ve not had any contact with him for some time, thankfully.  Actually, I’ve just found out that one of my team members has tested positive, so, that was shown on a lateral flow test, which is part of the risk assessment that we undertake as we do tests before we do any inspections, which we’ve been doing throughout the crisis.  Obviously, we’re wearing all the right PPE. It’s an issue at the moment because of the team members who he was with are having to isolate, so it’s a big deal but it’s been a big deal for everybody hasn’t it?  As it happens, all the team members work from home anyway, the Inspectors that is, so the home working has not been an issue.  Actually, it’s proved to be really beneficial from a personal point of view in terms of maintaining contact, you know, using the technology that everybody’s been forced into, but it’s working very well.  It’s a huge help, it reduces travel time as well.  So yeah, in that respect, it’s good.  

Personal Questions

  • Do you have any pets?

Yes, we’ve got a dog, we did have two, but sadly one died about three months ago.  So, that’s it, we aren’t having any more.  She’s a chocolate Labrador, but one that we’ve managed to keep slim because it’s well known that chocolate Labradors like eating food and ours certainly does. We’ve managed to control her diet to the point where she’s in good shape.  She’s 8 years old and her name’s Millie.

  • What’s your favourite movie of all time?

This might surprise some people, ‘Inside out’, if you’ve not seen it, I suggest you look it up.  I went along reluctantly to watch it with a couple of my Grandkids when they were about 13 or 14 in 2015.  It’s a really good movie about how your brain works and how you deal with stuff so I’d recommend people who have not seen it to go and watch it.  I went in thinking I was just going to watch a cartoon just to keep the Grand kids happy and I came out actually really quite enthused having learnt a lot about psychology, so yeah, it’s good.  My Grandkids had an absolutely different perspective of it than I did, but really good personal development for them, as it was for me actually.  

  • Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?

Rebellious, active and enquiring.

  • What is your biggest pet peeve/hate? 

Racism, very simply.  I’ve actually got a Grandaughter whose boyfriend is from an Afro Caribbean background which sort of brings it to the fore actually and I just hate it.  I’ve got a couple of members of staff who come from minority communities and I’ve worked with many black and minority ethnic people over the years. I just find it incredible that people are just so ignorant and bigoted. I hate racism.  So, that’s very easy to answer.

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

I’d put the 1950’s but I am from the 1950’s, so I thought I’d give that a bit more thought.  I actually studied history at school and it was the period 1789 to 1850 which was classed as revolution, reaction and reform.  I suppose, if pushed, that’s the period that I’d be most interested in living in because things were changing at a huge pace, there was a massive change in society, when you look back at it, all over the world actually.  For the Industrial Revolution, The French Revolution and the wars that were happening at the time.  So, yeah, that would be it for me.

  • What is your favourite quote and why?

“Walk the walk and talk the talk”.  I really do believe in that.  I don’t know if it’s a quote, it might be a quote I’ve just made up actually, but it’ll do for me.  It’s about keeping your feet on the ground and I’ve always done that.  As a Fire Chief, it’s important that you understand the job that people are doing for you and that you can do it yourself if necessary.  All be it probably not as well as they do it for you, in truth.  They’re the experts you’re just the strategic leader and manager of them, but it’s important that you understand what they do.  If you become a bit disconnected with it then the team becomes disenfranchised if your leadership is quite far removed.  So, absolutely, no question about, that for me.  I did a back to the floor when I was a Fire Chief and I’ve effectively done the same as Chief Inspector and gone out and done prison inspections with the team, seeing the issues that they have to face and deal with from a fire safety perspective.  It’s eye opening because it’s a long time ago since I was doing that sort of work.  So, yeah, it is about keeping your feet on the ground, so you are literally walking the walk and talking the talk, hence the link to the quote.

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

Definitely something in the car world.  Cars are a massive hobby of mine.  I’ve got a few classic cars, I’ve just done a 2200-mile trip on my holidays to the North of Scotland around Skye, the Outer Hebrides, the North Coast and the Cairngorms. All in a 1955 Sunbeam convertible.  So, it would have been something to do with cars, that’s what I wanted to do as a young bloke.

  • What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?

Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Diamond, motivational music for going to the gym and Lionel Richie.

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

Prince Charles, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.  Massive respect for all three of them for all different reasons but fairly obvious reasons when you look into it.  I’ve only been lucky enough to meet one of them, mainly because one of them was dead before I was born and the other one, I didn’t get the opportunity to meet but would like to have done.  Spectacular people actually.  One of them who is very much misunderstood, mainly by people who have never met him and that’s Prince Charles.  The fire service has just done a huge amount of work with the Prince’s Trust particularly the 12 week personal development Team programme. When you see just what that does to change young people’s lives, people who’ve had little or no chance in life to have a really good opportunity  of being a better educated person as a result, I just think is its amazing. I have been blown away so many times listening to the heart rending stories from young people at the end of the 12 weeks telling what life was like for them before they went on the course, what they have learned and done and then what the future holds for them. On every occasion the future was so much more positive. 

I would defy anybody to attend one of the Team presentation programmes in any of the fire and rescue services and not be moved by the hugely powerful stories. The Princes Trust has an absolutely huge amount to do with the fire and rescue service.  When I was in Lancashire, we had 27 teams operating a year, across the whole of the County and they still do that, it self-finances. The income comes predominantly from further education colleges as each person has a target to raise their basic skill levels whilst on the programme. I think there’s 15 of the fire & rescue services running the Team programme, others are doing all sorts of stuff associated with Team and other Princes Trust offerings. All are geared to making a positive difference to young people’s lives. There are huge links in with the police as amongst other things it is in reality also a crime reduction programme but not explicitly so otherwise many of the youngsters would be turned away before they started it ! In several fire and rescue services there are serving police officers and PCSO’s who are helping out and running those courses and honestly making a huge difference to people’s lives.  

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

  A solar powered sea water desalination unit and a fishing rod and that’s so you can survive.

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

Easy, a film called ‘Schindler’s List’.  Oscar Schindler was a great human being who was prepared to take incredible personal risks to help other people in the most serious danger.  If you haven’t seen it, watch it, tough watch but it’s a good film.

  •  If you had a spirit animal, what would it be and why?

I’d have to be an owl.  Wise and smart.  

  • What is the best gift you’ve ever received?

A friend rang me up to offer me a ticket to the World Cup Final and would I be interested in going?  Shortest answer I’ve ever given.  New Zealand versus Australia at Twickenham, so yeah.  

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

Golf clubs. I enjoy playing when I can and occasionally meeting your CEO Ian Moore because it’s always at charitable events, so it’s a nice environment to be in helping others whilst enjoying myself.

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

I don’t know whether this is a super power or not but I think it’s entirely appropriate, and that’s to crush evil. It sort of goes back to the days of Superman comics and things.  I don’t know which one would have that power but it sounds like a pretty good one to me.  

Professional Questions

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

Without any shadow of doubt, when faced with a tough decision, look in the mirror and the mirror will tell you whether it’s the right decision or not.  In other words, think very long and hard and reflect on it.  That was advice from my Dad.  

  • Where’s the most interesting place you’ve ever been with the Fire Industry?

I went to the FM global fire test facility in Rhode Island, USA when I was President of the Institution of Fire Engineers.  I found that so helpful, seeing large scale fire testing and of course, on the back of Grenfell, really very helpful to have seen this stuff in action.  I have actually been to the one at the old air ship hangar at Cardington, which used to be the BRE’s largest test facility.  But the FM global site was unbelievable.  Particularly as they did a dust explosion film, which I’ve never seen before.  I’ve been to the after affects of a dust explosion but never actually seen one reproduced.  Fascinating.  Bedfordshire FRS used to be very lucky when I was Chief there because Cardington was on their patch. The service used to get paid for doing what we would call, special service calls, where we had to go on standby in case of anything getting out of control during the fire tests.  So, we were very fortunate from a professional development perspective.  I went along to witness one of those experimental tests.  I do think it’s an area that fire and rescue services and the industry could work much more closely on together. It would give people in the service more exposure to fire testing, to see what happens.  It’s actually quite reassuring and in some cases alarming.  When you do see things being tested, particularly when they fail for instance. The test I witnessed was of a large insulated sandwich panel test. It was a 100ml polyurethane foam sandwich panel test and that was really quite alarming.  We had to run to evacuate, it was that bad.  I did a lot of work on the back of that with the IFE and with the service as well, on the problems associated with the sandwich panels.  Prior to that there had been a terrible tragedy when 2 Firefighters died unnecessarily at the Sun Valley poultry fire in Hereford which involved early collapse and rapid fire spread of these panels albeit they were polystyrene. It raised it to the fore in people’s mindsets. That was one of the reasons I went to the FM global fire test facility in Rhode Island in 1997 because that was what they were testing. There had been increasing global concern about the problems associated with large insulated sandwich panels in fires and the insurers were keen to reduce their financial losses and the risk to lives of the public and firefighters.

  • What time did you get to work this morning?

7.40am.  I caught the 6.42 from Milton-Keynes, so nice and early.  But that’s my normal time when I’m in the office, as I am today.  

  • What does your usual day look like?

Well, I don’t want to bore you with the travel arrangements around all that but it’s about an hour and half commute in the morning and about an hour and 45 in the evening.  Frankly, my working life has changed a lot with working predominantly from home. It’s very different with so many meetings online and the lack of face-to-face time directly. We’ve made up for it with Zoom, Teams and Skype technology like we’re using today. Whilst you can make it work, it’s not as good, but we have all learned to use it effectively improving day by day.  It’s developed into us using it in different ways.  The way the technology has developed it is really working pretty effectively.  Thank goodness we’ve got it as it would be difficult to imagine what would have happened from a work perspective if the pandemic had been 20 years ago. Obviously, I’ve got to manage my team, before this I was doing a face to face monthly development 1-2-1 with my team members and occasionally briefing ministers on issues, interacting with stakeholders, people in the Crown premises sector, and visits out on inspection with the team. It’s very varied. Pre-covid it was all very much work in the Home Office for me as I was never a designated home worker at all, that’s changed dramatically.  It was a big change.  I can understand the difficulties that some people have had, I’ve been lucky enough to have a study at home.  But I have been really quite shocked to hear particularly about some young people and particularly in London, who live in bedsits and what have you.  If they’ve had to go through Lockdown in a bedsit environment for long periods. I just don’t know how they have coped quite frankly.  I’m not surprised so many went back home or elsewhere and worked from there where they had other people around.  Home working is fine if you have the facilities and if you’ve got the interpersonal support.  So, lockdown has been a real challenge for so many other people. I came to terms with it by shutting the door to my study. I probably wouldn’t do that normally, but that’s my way of saying, I’m at work.  It works for me but we’re all different aren’t we and I do recognise just how lucky I am and have been over the last 18 months.

  • What makes you excited about the future of this industry?

I think it’s prompted by the post Grenfell era and ensuring that we take advantage of what was just a dreadful, dreadful occurrence.  It’s a once in a life time opportunity to improve fire safety in a way that won’t easily be diminished through time, so that all the things that went wrong, and of course there were many things that went wrong, don’t happen again.  I also think it’s about us all pulling in the same direction.  I’ve given talks at national events over the years about fire safety needing to be a virtuous circle. How buildings should be managed from a fire safety perspective, the building is designed, it’s built, it’s occupied, it might change occupier, it has a fire. The next part is where I don’t think the fire sector in its broader sense and I’ll include the service in that regard, spend enough time analysing in detail from different perspectives and then improving the way we do things. Whether that’s from an operations point of view, albeit that’s changed a lot in the last 10 years,  from a fire safety point of view, building construction, behaviour of people and building contents.  How we feed that into a system that should react to what’s happened.  Having a proper analysis taking place, so that you update the building regulations, you feed into operational procedures, you amend building standards and codes to ensure it doesn’t happen again.  It goes back to what I said earlier about the sandwich panels, if you apply that principal to the fires that occurred involving sandwich panels before the 2 Firefighters died. Surely if within the fire sector there had been much better sharing of learning and I include the insurers, if the intelligence from those fires had fed into the system that I’ve just been talking about, the Hereford and Worcester FRS and its firefighters would have been better prepared with what they were confronted with on that occasion.  You could also apply that to cladding of course.  Some of the issues were known about for certain in other parts of the world.  We do need to work together and I think that there are existing models.  The NFPA have one, they call it their Life Safety Eco System which follows broadly what I’ve just been talking about.  It’s about all the players and I mean all the players working together to achieve a better outcome.  Their system is around cogs in a gearbox if you like, ensuring all the cogs are working together and if one of those is broken it just makes it very difficult to have a positive outcome.  You need a skilled workforce, you need compliance, you need preparedness for emergency response, you need an informed public, you need investment in standards and safety.

  • What do you like about the fire industry?

I think it’s the keenness to interact with other players, which is starting to happen more and more but I think it needs to be more effective, particularly around the fire protection industry working more closely with fire and rescue services, for the reasons that I’ve just mentioned.

  • How does your work and family life come together?

I think pretty well, you’d probably need to ask my wife that question rather than me!  We’re a really close family, we’ve got 4 children and 8 Grandchildren, 5 of whom live next door.  I play golf, I go to the gym, walk the dog and less frequently than I should occasionally mess around with the classic cars.

  • What matters most to you?

In a work context, which I think I need to answer this question, it’s about stopping lives being lost unnecessarily from fire, quite frankly.  That’s what I’ve been doing for a very long time since I became a senior manager in the fire and rescue service.  From the 1980’s to now, that’s been my goal, it’s what I’m focused on.  From an IFE point of view, this is a global battle if you like and as cladding has proven, it’s a global building market, where somethings being developed in a particular part of the world, we need to learn from each other and we need to have the systems in place and we need to do that quickly, not when it’s too late.  

  • What would you tell yourself at the age of 21?

Take full advantage of your degree and grasp every opportunity to create those that aren’t readily available to you.  You’ve got to make things happen.  You can’t just wait for things to happen you’ve got to make them happen.  It strikes me that 21-year-olds aren’t as mature as they used to be, but I don’t know, I was married by the time I was 21, that just doesn’t happen anymore, does it?  That’s a big shocker for some people, I’ve been married for 47 years.

  • What motivates you?

Reducing unnecessary loss of life which we’ve already covered with the IFE and that’s a really big deal for me because finally people have accepted and recognised that raising standards of competency through high quality CPD opportunities, is just the way it has to be.  It’s one thing passing  examinations and proving your competence, but how do you maintain that competence?  When you look at Doctors particularly, who the hell would want a doctor operating on them that hasn’t kept up to speed from a CPD point of view, bluntly it’s a no brainer isn’t it?  You need to be able to demonstrate that and I think that the medical profession certainly does that very well, as do other professions, some don’t do it quite so well.  I don’t think, in all fairness that the fire world has done it particularly well and I think that’s a Grenfell learning opportunity.  It goes back to what I was saying about this sort of holistic, virtuous circle around the life safety ecosystem about having competent people in all parts of the profession. This is vitally important.  The other part of the question of what motivates me, I really do have, genuinely, a great team of inspectors who are really, really highly motivated to making a real difference in improving and maintaining fire safety standards, which is a real delight when you’ve got people working for you who are so keen to make that difference.  I’ve been lucky in my career, with very, very few exceptions, the people I’ve worked with have always been highly motivated.  It goes with the territory coming from the fire and rescue service background.  That’s why you join, you want to make a difference.  

  • Where do you want to be in 5 years?

Bearing in mind I’ve told you how old I am, there’s every chance I might be working a few days less a week, I’ve no plans to do that just yet.  I’m physically fit and active and I really don’t see any real reason to wind down at all from what I’m doing, myself.  So, we’ll see.

  • Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?

When you look at the finance around fire, if you like, you’ve got insurers, the fire protection industry who are far and away, the biggest spenders in that market place.  So, it’s vitally important that there’s input from all parts of the fire sector.  It’s vital that the FIA are key players inputting to policy to ensure the very latest thinking is factored into the future.  It goes back to the theme that’s been running through my answers earlier on as well.  

  • What do you want to say to the readers?

I’ve been fortunate to have worked in the fire world for 49 years and I wouldn’t change that for the world, I really wouldn’t.  I’m going to continue to help and support people in organizations who want to make a positive difference to fire safety and my role as Chief Inspector, that’s with the stakeholders who are responsible for the 16,000 Crown premises.  Then my voluntary work through the IFE to raise standards globally as I’ve been saying through the discussion.  

In the next edition of Fireside Chat will be with James Wheeler, Chief Commercial Officer at Fireco.

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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.