FIA CEO shares his views on the fire industry

03 November 2015

Q What do you think are the most pressing issues to be addressed in the fire sector?

I believe the level of professionalism in the core of the fire sector is higher than most people think. The problem lies in the area on the fringes of this core; there are a number of companies/individuals without professional knowledge, training and experience that are allowed to operate in what is basically a crucial area of life safety.

We can learn a lesson from the way the domestic gas engineering world has been regulated, in that all engineers undertaking gas work in the United Kingdom, Isle of Man, and Guernsey must be, BY LAW,  registered with the Gas Safe Register and businesses can only register if their engineers are competent and hold up to date and appropriate qualifications. Importantly, this also includes a registered engineer working out of scope of their qualifications so they must be directly relevant. With a publically available register, the gas world openly encourages “whistleblowing” should a member of the public believe an engineer is operating outside of this register.

I do see a number of people that argue against professional fire training to reach a pre-set level and be certified as a waste of money “as we know what we’re doing and don’t see the need”. In many cases this may be true, but to ensure all of our engineers meet this minimum level so the public is protected as proficiently as possible, we need to move to a legal basis of competency without which they cannot operate.

It is easy to say “there is a long way to go…”, but I don’t believe there is. There is already a general acceptance (and in some cases insistence) by many parties that professional training and the awarding of certificates to successful candidates is a prerequisite for engineers working on risk assessment, installations, commissioning and maintenance. We need the Government to fully understand the implications of a legally enforceable “Fire Safe” Register, once this happens we can push to have it ratified.

Q What are your views on the future of the Fire and Rescue Services (and, indeed, the Emergency Services in general)?

I have only been in the role six weeks and this subject is certainly dominating the higher level meetings/seminars I have attended. The main topic is the Home Office Bill being put forward to merge the blue light services, initially bringing fire brigades under the control of Police and Crime Commissioners. This will potentially be the foundation for even greater reform, with police chiefs saying it will lead to police officers and firefighters being trained as paramedics (to what level is unsure) and expected to deal with first aid injuries on the spot rather than wait for ambulances. My initial thoughts without being involved in much debate about the subject is that there can always be ways of making any operation more efficient. There has to be a number of activities that are common amongst the emergency services that could be merged such as shared back office services, combined buildings or even vehicles (which can facilitate joint response to incidents). In other words we should not fight it just because it means change.

The initial plans have provoked ardent controversy saying any proposal to merge the roles of emergency service workers could put lives at risk. Is this over-reaction without knowing the full details? To put into extreme, a comment was recorded that “We can’t arrive at the situation where your home has been burgled and you don’t know whether a paramedic, a fireman or a police officer is going to turn up” and “I don’t think anybody would want a police car to turn up and then to wheel a hose out of the boot and start putting a fire out.”.

As with most initiatives, it is all about efficiency (aka money saving) - in this case for the taxpayer - which is laudable. However this is fraught with danger (concerns with demarcation lines, culpability etc.) should we get it wrong and there will be many more rounds in the ring before this one is sorted out.

Q What are your plans in terms of dialogue with Government on this issue and others?

As I said, I am only six weeks in to the role so do not have the full picture yet. I am keen to engage with all stakeholders before forming my opinions on the merging issue and only then can I give my thoughts. As for engaging Government on other issues, I am clear on the professional register and ready to go now. We have a few opportunities coming up soon to champion this and I fully intend to focus a lot of my time on presenting this as the next logical step. Much time and effort has been put in to certify products, the latest being the Construction Products Regulation (CPR). Without going into too much detail, the CPR states that all products within the scope of a mandated European Norm (EN) have to be CE marked. A differentiating and most important feature of the CPR is that life and safety critical products will have to be third party tested and approved by an independent third party; the new legislation will apply to both domestic and commercial fire products. This puts the products on the right level, now all we need to do is to put the people at the same level.

Q Having joined from the security industry, what are your opinions on the convergence agenda for fire and security? Is it happening in the real world?

This is full circle for me as I started in the fire industry after serving in the Military (I misread the advert seeing ‘fire alarms’ as ‘fire arms’!). I have always been an advocate for truly integrated systems with BMS, fire, security, lighting, information broadcast etc. but there has to be a balance in embracing technology whilst ensuring stability and resilience. When I brought video smoke detection to the market many years ago, this emphasised the use of convergence where the equipment is historically security (specifically CCTV) but the thought process of placement, application, smoke and flame phenomena etc. is clearly fire related.

The advances in information technology have been huge in the last few decades and the fire industry should be taking advantage of this and not fearing it. Everything about the way fire alarms are designed (products, placements, annunciation of alarms etc.) are all about speed of detection to alerting fast, with as much accuracy as possible. I fully understand the need to protect the fire alarm system’s integrity from outside influences and we need to be assured this is the case every step of the way. Compliance to codes/legislation/approvals will keep manufacturers and system integrators “honest”, but the strive for cost efficiencies, increased performance and the pure drive for technological advances will win in the end. You only have to see the push towards mass notification systems to get a taste of things to come.

Q What are your main hopes and aspirations in terms of your new role as CEO at the FIA? What would you like to achieve in the short and longer terms?

I am still formulating these thoughts in my current fact finding mode, but there are a few longer term aspirations that are clear. I would like to see all involved with the process of designing, installing, commissioning and maintaining and “owning” fire products/systems (including fire fighting equipment, services, appliances, personal protective equipment etc.) reach a professional level that is measurable.

I am keen on innovation and want to further the work the FIA has done to date, I have a few strong ideas on how to pursue this but need to discuss with my Board of Directors first before laying those plans out as they are fairly radical. We need to evolve as an industry and speed up technology advances at the same rate as, let’s say, the electronic security industry. This is far from a weakness of those involved in R&D, but a stifling of innovation in the fire industry due to exorbitant cost of third party approvals (especially if you want to trade internationally) and the return on investment is often hard to justify.

I want the FIA to be the voice of the fire industry. We have excellent depth in technical support and the knowledge throughout the staff and councils is second to none in nearly every area. The FIA is well respected and very influential in many spheres of engagement to ensure members’ needs are supported and we can raise the bar in our industry. Our strapline of “For professionals, by professionals” really rings true to me. With our brand new website being the portal to information for our members (and much to non-members as well), we are well placed to achieve this.

Q Did any factors in particular influence your decision to step into this role?

I have always enjoyed working in the fire alarm industry; it is very close-knit due to its size and has some great characters, many of whom I know as friends; and without trying to sound too righteous, life safety is clearly an important field to be in. Another attraction of the industry is the endless scope of applications; every home, building, facility, church, tunnel, vehicle etc. can be affected by fire and we get to visit some incredible places that many others would not. Over the years I have surveyed oil rigs, nuclear power stations, aircraft hangars, cathedrals to name but a few and found it fascinating.

Specifically the CEO at the FIA… to learn more acronyms (a task that will never be complete)! I was looking for a more strategic role that did not involve me getting bogged down with day to day issues and we are blessed in the FIA with a talented General Manager and his support staff that allows me to “do my thing”. The FIA is clearly the biggest and best fire industry trade association with over 650 members and is well respected. With such a strong membership portfolio, I will get to discuss many important issues and hopefully help shape the future of the fire industry in line with what the FIA and its members want.

Being a managing director of several companies I will naturally look at the commercial aspects and in this case – growth. I see great growth opportunities in a number of areas (training, International influence, membership numbers, more localised support, exhibitions to name but a few), and these can only benefit our members. Although the FIA is “not-for-profit”, any monies gained can be invested into a number of activities to further promote innovation, best practice and British companies’ influence in the home and world market.

I am really looking forward to getting involved in all of these areas and taking the FIA to the next level.