We continue to live in challenging times for our sector and the country. The Grenfell Inquiry is ongoing with revelations that continue to cause dismay to those of us who maintain an interest in the proceedings. COVID-19 dominates every news stream as we head into the winter months. By the time of publication, the outcomes of the ‘Deal or No Deal’ post-Brexit negotiations will also be known.
It would be remiss not to touch on these issues, but I would also like to take the opportunity to look beyond the current headlines, raise some questions for our sector and consider the environment we expect to be operating in over the coming months and years as the United Kingdom emerges from the current global crisis and takes its first steps as an independent nation.
Like the rest of the world, we in the UK have had to adapt our ways of life in the light of COVID-19. The fire and rescue service has received praise for the success of its safety advice and success in this area has undoubtedly contributed to a reduction in fire-related deaths and injuries. It is my view that continued work to educate the public, which has encompassed multiple generations, has brought about genuine changes in attitude and behaviour, something that cannot be achieved with a short-term approach.
By comparison, in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak the public demonstrated an ability to follow government and public-health advice and instruction and the results enabled the NHS to cope with the demands of the pandemic. More recently instruction was replaced with advice and sadly the trajectory of cases soared with the need for the government to once again introduce instruction over advice.
COVID-19 has demonstrated human behaviour on a scale that would be almost impossible to create as a social experiment. What other scenario has so clearly demonstrated the speed in change of attitude of people and the different behaviour that short-term advice elicits when compared to instruction?
In the past, fire-safety-led ‘stable door’ legislation often followed disaster. Enforcement of rules brought about changes to create a safer environment for the places where people live, work and visit. Fire safety was not immune from the move to self-regulation and the consequences have been seen all too often with moves to close the unintended gaps between what was expected and what actually resulted.
I am sure that many of us in the fire sector expected Grenfell to lead to sharp, swift changes to make our high-rise buildings the safe environment they are capable of being and an immediate response to deal with the specific buildings that are known to share characteristics with Grenfell Tower. We continue to wait for this change three years on.
Of course, legislation and instruction cannot be the default response to everything, but where the actions of individuals can so dramatically impact a wide section of society there must be an expectation and duty to ensure individuals deliver a safe environment.
It is sometimes difficult to see beyond the restrictions in which we currently live and as we look to the future it will be one with a range of challenges, including the fallout of the global pandemic. The global financial arena is yet to be fully understood with economists only able to speculate on the impact of COVID-19 for the world economy. What is clear is that the public-sector debt, which now stands at record levels, will create a legacy for current and future generations.
Our current reality does paint a fairly bleak picture but as the saying goes ‘sunshine follows the rain’ and there will be brighter days ahead. With this in mind, how will leaders in our great sector take the fire industry and fire engineering forward? How will we regroup and progress embracing new opportunities and technology? Will the experience of a global pandemic shape our future planning assumptions? Will the challenges of public-sector funding limit opportunities? What about the pre-existing climate emergency we face, how do we ensure our contribution to dealing with this? A lot of questions for which I have no doubt there will be a myriad of answers and I think there is room for optimism.
I once sat with Keith Grint, an authority on leadership and an accomplished author who has written many books on the subject. His opening line was that he knew less about leadership now than he ever did before. This unusual opening line from someone I was expecting to hear great wisdom from immediately caught my attention. What I learnt then and since is that there is no single successful approach to leadership and that every situation will require its own unique style of leadership depending on what is required, what is available and the environment in which we find ourselves at any given time.
One of the things that does seem to have been a constant throughout my leadership experience is the need to create a collective understanding of what is required and then to work with those around you to create and follow a common goal.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the positive outcomes of such an approach with the UK leading the way in many of the treatments for sufferers. This has dramatically reduced not only the mortality rate of the disease but also the suffering and recovery times of many thousands of people who have contracted the virus. This has been possible through the collective efforts of medical professionals, equipment manufacturers (both medical and non-medical) and the many thousands of support industries that have accelerated production, changed processes or started from scratch to deliver everything from hand-sanitising solutions to state of the art ventilators. As a nation, our scientists are not alone in their work to develop a vaccine to combat COVID-19 and there is a genuine optimism that the UK will deliver a successful vaccine (possibly more than one) within the next 12 months. The success of this programme would represent a huge collective achievement of research and technology with a positive global outcome.
We are a great industry in a great nation. History has demonstrated the UK’s ability to recover from adversity and we benefit from having some great minds, incredible innovation and the ability to lead from the front.
Whilst there are challenging times ahead I am confident that the fire sector is well placed to play its part in leading and contributing to a fire-safe future.
Very best wishes.
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