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Fireside Chat with Roy Wilsher - Home Office
Intro: I joined the Fire and Rescue Service in November 1981. I served almost forty years in fire and rescue, I did 23(ish) years in the London Fire Brigade up to Assistant Chief or Assistant Commissioner level for fire safety. I moved to Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue as the deputy in 2004, became the chief there in 2005. I stayed as Chief in Hertfordshire and did a number of other things, like Chief Executive for police and crime commissioner for Hertfordshire and director for CFOA and a director in the county council, at the same time. In 2017 I became the first chair of the National Fire Chief’s Council and that finished in March of this year (2021). Right at the moment, I’m working a couple of days a week with the Home Office advising them on the white paper they are writing and also have a couple of other little things on the go, a small bit of work with Hitachi and a couple of other little firms. Nothing too major. I have a first-class degree in fire safety engineering and I’m a chartered engineer as well.
- How have you been affected by COVID-19?
I was definitely affected like most people, but much less than some, my family has not had any tragedies, no one has died, in fact, none of my family has caught it, as far as we know, which is quite lucky, especially as my mother is quite elderly, she’s 81. Spending my whole last year as chair of the national fire chiefs council and not meeting another chief fire officer face to face, which was a bit odd. Running this new organisation remotely, 25% of the time as chair I ran the national fire chief’s council without meeting anyone, apart from on Zoom, Skype and Teams. My mother was ill in the first lockdown, but she had blood clots on her lungs which almost killed her, but that was, believe it nor not, through lack of exercise, DVT (deep vein thrombosis), the type of thing you get on long haul flights because she wasn’t going out, she was isolating, we were doing the shopping, she wasn’t getting enough exercise. The really interesting part of that story is she was driven to the hospital on the night that she collapsed by a Firefighter, driving one of the ambulances and it was a Firefighter from my first ever fire station, Hornsey in North London, pretty close to home. I made sure I made contact with the firefighter and thanked him.
Regarding the work that the fire and rescue service personnel have done to assist with the Covid response, it’s been incredible. The fire service absence rate has been remarkably low and a variety of work carried out, whether it’s delivering PPE to hospitals or food to vulnerable people, driving ambulances. I just checked this morning, fire and rescue staff have administered over 300,000 vaccinations, actually given 300,000 jabs, which on top of everything else is incredible. So, it’s pretty good. So, the overlook, on the whole, is we’ve just been working through the mad world that is lockdown. Others have had it much worse, haven’t they? With people catching covid and then many sadly dying.
- Do you have any pets?
Yes, we have a cat called Nell and she’s a female ginger cat, that’s apparently unusual, rather than a male ginger Tom. My wife tells me it’s unusual so that’s gospel.
- What’s your favourite movie of all time?
It’s a wonderful life. It’s an old Jimmy Stewart Christmas film, from the 1950s, it’s probably the best Christmas film ever made. I always watch it at Christmas. It’s a real feel-good film, it’s a bit dated now for the younger generation but it’s still a good film.
- Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?
Sporty, Arsenal (I’m a supporter) and social.
- What is your biggest pet peeve/hate?
Bad manners. When you’re driving and you let someone go and they don’t say thank you, that does annoy me. When you deliberately pull to one side to move out of the way to let someone come through and they just drive past like nothing has happened. Bad manners in general, but definitely, that.
- If you could be from any other decade (or era), which would it be and why?
I’m a real history buff, I love history and my favourite period history is from about the end of the eighth century 790-1066. That’s the period where the Vikings were invading Britain so if I could time travel, that’s the time I’d go back to. I’m quite fascinated by the 1940’s as well. We see all the films and things, but I wonder what it was really like.
- What is your favourite quote and why?
‘I wrote you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write you a short letter’. That’s been attributed to many people including Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin and Winston Churchill, so I don’t know who said it first but I’ve read a report fairly recently that was 160 pages long and it was dreadful, because obviously, they didn’t have time to make it into a good, short report.
- If you weren’t in the fire industry – what would you be doing and why?
I was going to be a History and Physical Education teacher. So, way back when, I did A-Levels, not very good A-Levels, but I did do them. I was accepted at Portsmouth Polytechnic to do History and PE and a lot of my friends from school had started work already, so they were earning money. So, I was wondering whether I could do another 3 years without earning money and I saw an advert to join the London Fire Brigade and I thought I’d do that instead. That was the reason I joined the Fire Service. I never had any big ambition to be in the Fire Service or didn’t really know anything about it and I thought “Oh, that looks really interesting, I’ll try that”. So, I gave it a go. It’s worked out OK!
- What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?
My wife will tell you it’s awful, she says I’ve got an awful taste in music. It’s a real mix so anything from The Jam, Madness, The Prodigy through the Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel to In Paradisum which is classical music, so it’s a real mix. I have this playlist called ‘Dad’s favourites’ it’s on the family account and it only ever gets played if I’m in a room by myself. One of my favourite songs on there is Magnificent by Elbow.
- If you could have any three people (dead or alive) over for dinner – who would they be?
Tim Peake (the astronaut), Oscar Wilde and Sir Isaac Newton. Oscar Wilde was a poet but also known for being gay in the 1890s when it was still illegal and you’d get thrown into jail for it.
- What two things would you take to a Desert Island?
A subscription supply to beer, so someone to keep supplying me with cold beer and sun tan lotion.
- Name a book, movie or tv show that has positively shaped you and why?
I don’t recall ever reading or watching anything and thinking “Cor bloody hell, that’s life-changing”. I take a lot from autobiographies, so Clive Woodward’s or Tim Peakes and that sort of thing. There is often one or two little nuggets in there. Often when you read about sportspeople, they appear to be the most selfish people in the world, probably most driven. I have read Steve Redgrave’s, he was going to row and do nothing else with his whole life, no matter what else was going on. So, autobiographies rather than any particular book, learning from other people.
- If you were an animal, what would it be and why?
A cat, they seem to have an easy life, don’t they? Our cat scratches the door and you open it for her. The cat knows what it wants, so I think a cat.
- What is the best gift you’ve ever received?
It’s a recent one, it is a portable pizza oven. We’ve been experimenting with how to make the dough and the best way to make it is by hand and giving it a good kneading so it rises properly. It’s a little OONI, it’s a fantastic little thing. A little Dalek, it doesn’t take much fuel and it gets really hot. It’s great.
- What's your favourite thing in your closet right now?
The thing I wear most is my brown boots. I wear them probably more than I should because they’re comfortable -ankle length boot things.
- If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
To travel in time. I don’t think I’d ever travel forwards in time, I think I’d always travel back and then come back to this time. You might see something you didn’t want to see if you went forwards. Apparently, according to science fiction films, you can change the time-space continuum travelling forward.
- What's the best piece of advice you've received?
When I was first a flexible duty officer, which means not riding in the fire engines anymore, you travel to incidents in a car. I turned up at a really big fire, it was the first time I’d been at a big fire at that level and I was rushing around and putting my uniform on. The assistant chief officer walked pass me and just said “An officer never runs, just calm down a little bit, take it all in, because if you jump on the back of the control unit and you’re all het up, what do you think everyone else is going to feel like? You’re supposed to be in charge, so just calm down and think about it a little bit”.
- What time did you get to work this morning?
I started about 8.30am.
- What does your usual day look like?
Recently it’s been a little bit of writing, a little bit of thinking but lots of Zoom, Skype and whatever meetings. But, before then it was a lot of meetings, a lot of chairing boards, a lot of attending boards, a lot of meeting people, a lot of talking. When I used to go into London and meet people, go to offices I squatted in at the Home Office or the National Police Chief Council or London Fire Brigade, before covid and home working you’d have a bit of travel time between meetings, you might be able to grab a coffee or go and think about things. But, during lockdown and covid, it’s just literally one meeting after another. You’re lucky if you can grab a cup of tea. There’s little time to prepare for the next meeting or consider the last.
- What makes you excited about the future of this industry?
If we can truly get to grips with innovation and research. I mean we have tried a few times between Fire Service and Fire Industry in those talks but we’ve never quite put our finger on doing it and there’s all sorts of reasons for that. Some Fire service colleagues are very worried about working too closely with the private sector in case they are accused of doing the wrong thing. We’ve got really good entrepreneurs in this country we’ve got really good thinkers and scientists and if you can bring it all together. I think there’s the opportunity to innovate and for the industry to make people safer and earn money.
What does the fire industry need?
Everyone needs talent and if you’re not attracting diverse talent, you can be missing out on talent, so that’s one thing. But I think big data is the future of lots of things. The data gives you the evidence that you need to produce the thing that’s required. So, I think a really good use of data. Talent and data, is my answer.
- What do you like about the fire industry?
In terms of the diversity of everything from putting a fire engine together through to super sensitive smoke detectors and everything in between. It’s a diverse sector, isn’t it?
- How does your work and family life come together?
For the last 18 months, my eldest son who doesn’t live here anymore, I’m in his bedroom as an office. Then three of us have been working from home all the way through since last March ‘20’. My wife and I and our youngest son have picked different rooms. There’s a real danger of becoming institutionalised where you never go out, exactly the same routine every day. You get up, you have breakfast, have a shower then you’re on the computer, have something to eat, do some exercise, hopefully, watch telly, go to bed, repeat. It can be really boring and I think that it is one of the problems, starting to ease out of lockdown, it’s still a bit boring, but we’re a long way from normality still and need to be careful, we appear still to be some way from proper holidays and nights out and that sort of thing. But, in future, everything will be about balance, I don’t think we’ll do a four-hour journey for a one-hour meeting anymore unless its really important to be there in person, I think that’s in the past, but if you’ve got a four-hour meeting with an hour’s journey then it’s worth going.
- What matters most to you?
Family. A friend of mine has a 17-year-old daughter who had a serious head injury a little while ago and was intensive care for two weeks and it was all touch and go and I was chatting to him and he did say “Everyone always says family really matters, but it’s not until something really happens that you realise that nothing else really matters really”.
- What would you tell yourself at the age of 21?
Don’t stay in the UK and do your Leading Firefighters written exam. Take the free holiday to Florida that you were offered by your friends. All I had to do was deliver a DHL package and we had ten days in Florida. I didn’t go, I stayed and did my LF’s exams instead, because I thought that was really important at the time. Little did I know that I had loads of time to do that. So, go on holiday to Florida is what I’d tell myself at 21.
- What motivates you?
I like to think it is improvement, improvement of self, organisations and our service to the public.
Where do you want to be in 5 years?
I think by then I would like to be working just part-time. I should imagine I’d be a Grand Father first time by then. I think in 5 years-time the focus will be going more family than work, I would have thought. So, family, some work and lots of holidays.
- Where do you want to be in 5 years?
I think by then I would like to be working just part-time. I should imagine I’d be a Grand Father first time by then. I think in 5 years time the focus will be going more family than work, I would have thought. So, family, some work and lots of holidays.
- Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?
I think any collective, as long as people collaborate properly and to collaborate properly takes willingness, people willing to collaborate. One of the things I used to say in the NFCC is “Why do things 40 or 50 times when you can do it once”? So, efficiency, networking, connection, collaboration, working together for the good of the industry, I think that’s why it’s important.
- What do you want to say to the readers?
I think one of the things we all need to work on in the Fire Sector Federation, The Fire Industry Association, The Institute of Fire Engineers, The NFCC. There are lots of groups of quite a small sector really when you think about everything the country does, so I think it’s about working closer together. We do it a bit but we tend to be a little bit siloed, so I think the best thing to work for Fire Industry and Fire and Rescue services is working together a bit closer. How it would look if it all came together in 5 years-time. I think the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Industry Association could work together better through some sort of Collaboration Board or Improvement Board or something that brings a lot of those people together. A much more formal interaction between the different parts of the fire world and a single strong unifying voice that certainly gets things done better than everyone trying to do the same thing.
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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.