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Training at the Learning & Development Centre.

Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service

In this feature we speak to Chief Fire and Rescue Officer Gary Thompson about the challenges and opportunities facing Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service and new developments which will shape the organisation for the future.

CFRO Thompson said: “On 7th November 2016, I was honoured to take up the role as Chief Fire and Rescue Officer (CFRO). It was a huge honour, personally and professionally, to be appointed to lead Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service.

“Since becoming Chief I have been focused on four key areas of the organisation – the services we provide for our local communities, our people, how we govern and how we manage our resources. The renewed focus on these cornerstones of the organisation – as we challenge the status quo, expand our thinking and explore new ways of collaborative working – is having a transformative effect on the way we do business.”

Firefighters test smoke alarms during a Home Fire Safety Check.

Firefighters test smoke alarms during a Home Fire Safety Check.

Serving our local communities

The role of a Firefighter has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. CFRO Thompson explains: “Providing an emergency response will always be at the core of what Firefighters do, but it is the breadth of incidents that we respond to which has changed significantly. It is no longer fires but road traffic collisions, flooding and water rescues, animal rescues, incidents involving chemical, biological or radioactive substances as well as search and rescue incidents to which we are increasingly tasked.

“There is no doubt, expectations about what Fire & Rescue Services can and should deliver has changed. I know from my participation in the National Fire Chiefs Council, and in my role as an advisor to the National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services, that the Firefighter role is being challenged to adapt and expand.

“One such example and highlight of the past year was the success of the Emergency Medical Co-Responding pilot at Lurgan Fire Station. From 19th September 2016 to 17th September 2017, Firefighters responded to 394 emergency medical co-responding calls and worked closely with colleagues from NI Ambulance Service. I am extremely proud of how Lurgan Station personnel embraced this new area of emergency response, proving that Firefighters can make a significant contribution to both public safety and public health in Northern Ireland.

“Being a Firefighter is also about community education and prevention activities to help keep people safe. One of the most significant developments over the last year has been the 25% reduction in the number of accidental dwelling fire fatalities. We have been taking active steps to specifically target our prevention work at those people considered to be at greatest risk – those aged 60 or older, anyone with a disability or impaired mobility and those receiving help for day-to-day tasks – carrying out free Home Fire Safety Checks, fitting smoke alarms and distributing fire-safety information.

“Our work is also increasingly about collaboration and partnership. With over 70 partnership agreements signed between NIFRS and other organisations in the public and voluntary sectors to help identify and keep vulnerable people safe from fire in their homes, we are reaching out to other services and building synergies that can be easily incorporated into our current prevention and protection activities.”

NIFRS crews carry out a water rescue.

NIFRS crews carry out a water rescue.

Our people

“One of my key priorities on becoming Chief was to initiate Wholetime recruitment in order to create a more stable organisation. It’s been several years since we last recruited for Wholetime Firefighters and I am all too aware that our Firefighter numbers have decreased as people naturally reached retirement age.

“Thanks to the support of NIFRS Board and the Corporate Management Team we were able to develop and deliver an effective Wholetime recruitment campaign in early 2017. Working closely with key stakeholders on entry criteria and assessment requirements, I’m proud to report that we had almost 5,000 applicants and exceeded our target for female applicants – 12.3% against a target of 10%.

“Despite a challenging selection process I’m delighted that our first intake of 27 Wholetime Trainee Firefighters started their training on 2nd January 2018 and a second intake of 31 started on 5th March. We plan to have a further two intakes of Wholetime trainees, each financial year, for the next two years. It is an exciting time for the organisation but it also presents a challenge as we, like other public services, are living within a tight financial climate.

“I’ve been struck time and again by the passion and pride of our people which in turn has led to increased performance and professionalism. I am delighted to say that a number have been recognised in the last year in the New Year’s Honours List and other national awards for the great contribution they have made to public safety in Northern Ireland.

“Within the organisation, we have restructured and built on the Operational Long Service and Good Conduct Medal Ceremony, adding a 20-year Long Service Award for our Support Staff and recognising those who have gone above and beyond, during operational incidents, through the Chief Fire and Rescue Officer’s Commendation. Our annual Employee Awards provide a platform to recognise and acknowledge individuals, teams and Watches who have consistently demonstrated competence, capacity, contribution, commitment and courage.

The Regional Control Centre at NIFRS Headquarters, Lisburn.

The Regional Control Centre at NIFRS Headquarters, Lisburn.

“During the year we have sought new ways to ensure regular communication with all employees with the introduction of a new monthly internal e-zine and a Chief’s blog. We recognise the need for two-way communication and have actively sought to build engagement with Meet the Chief sessions and monthly employee engagement sessions with staff and members of the Corporate Management Team.

“We introduced a new performance management system to ensure that employees have clear objectives aligned to their annual business plans and that their training needs are supported at every stage of their progression through the organisation.

“Managing our Health and Wellbeing is a critical aspect of ensuring that our people are able to meet the challenges ahead. We have focused on improving physical and mental health and introduced a Critical Incident Stress Management programme for employees exposed to difficult incidents.

“We have had considerable engagement with staff as we reviewed our Vision, Mission and Values, ensuring that they had input and ownership. The process of embedding our new Vision, Mission and Values will continue throughout 2018/19.”

Crews attending a major fire in West Belfast.

Crews attending a major fire in West Belfast.

Improving governance

“Over the last 15 months we have implemented 13 business improvement projects across key areas including Estates, IT, HR and Operations. Each project has been designed to not only improve future service delivery but also to address a large number of historical audit recommendations. The Strategic Leadership Team has made significant progress on each project, demonstrating marked business improvements.

“We have also made substantial improvements across the organisation in regard to all aspects of Information Management, providing training and information sessions for key staff. We have reviewed core policies and procedures regarding Information Management, strengthened our stance in areas such as Data Protection and created new direction for Information Assurance.

Effective use of our resources

“We are committed to providing the best value Fire and Rescue Service to the public. Whilst our costs equate to approximately £38 per head of population, which compares favourably across the sector, we must not become complacent and the need to effectively manage our resources remains a priority.

“We have been taking active steps to build efficiencies into how we work. The development and implementation of a new Integrated Risk Management Plan has ensured that we appropriately deploy our resources in response to identified risk. The associated risk methodology has been recognised as industry best practice. This ‘resource to risk’ approach has enabled the delivery of significant organisational change in partnership with key stakeholders, including the introduction of new crewing arrangements.

“A number of key projects will come to fruition in the next financial year to help us achieve greater efficiencies including the opening of our new £7.8m Service Support Centre in Belfast. The maintenance, servicing and repair workshops at three separate locations will relocate along with the equipment workshop and stores into one building to promote greater control and allow for the effective provision of supplies to all parts of the organisation. Bringing key operational support staff and services together will deliver real business improvement across the organisation.

“Last month we started work on Phase 1 of our new Learning and Development Centre – a dedicated, purpose-built facility to meet our training needs. Phase 1 will support our critical training infrastructure and includes a tactical firefighting facility of six floors offering realistic, simulated firefighting scenarios as well as a welfare and classroom building. Work on Phase 1 is scheduled to take a year to complete. Work has already started on the planning and design stages for Phase 2 of the project which will cover the remainder of the training infrastructure works.

Crews attend a city-centre incident.

Crews attend a city-centre incident.

“Both projects represent significant capital investment in the future of our Service and have been a long time in the planning but I would like to thank the Department of Health for their support and commitment to these much needed new facilities.

“A significant organisational review is currently underway with the aim of creating a unified and consistent structure across the whole organisation. The development and implementation of the Area & District Review will ensure that we are tackling duplication and building efficiency into our working methods.

“The current Command & Control System, used to manage all emergency 999 calls and to mobilise resources to incidents, has been in place since 1999 and needs to be replaced. We have been working closely with the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service, who also require a new system, to procure a replacement Command & Control Mobilising System.

“Significant work is also underway to strengthen and enhance our IT infrastructure, systems and resilience. The procurement of new networks as well as WiFi across all our stations is underway and due to be completed next month. These crucial IT developments will make a positive difference to our daily work providing quicker access and better connectivity.

Looking ahead

“Despite the inevitable challenges, I believe we will see further out-workings of our renewed focus on the service we provide for our local communities, our people, how we govern and how we manage our resources. I believe the organisation will be in an even stronger position to meet the challenges ahead and I am incredibly proud of the organisation and the work that we do in protecting the whole community from fire and other emergencies. I consider it the greatest privilege to be at the helm as we embark on the next stage of our journey.”

For more information, go to www.nifrs.org

Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service

Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) is one of the largest Fire and Rescue Services in the UK, protecting and serving the people of Northern Ireland – a population of 1.81 million covering an area of over 5,500 square miles.

Under The Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and The Fire and Rescue Services (Emergencies) Order (Northern Ireland) 2011, NIFRS responds to fires, road traffic collisions and other emergencies including chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incidents, search-and-rescue incidents, serious flooding and transport incidents.

The organisation has 2,200 employees – comprising operational and support staff, 68 fire stations and a dedicated 999 Regional Control Centre where all 999 calls for fire are answered and crews and appliances mobilised to respond.

NIFRS is the only UK service with a European land border and arrangements are in place to facilitate cross-border co-operation.

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Gary Thompson is a member of the Institute of Directors, a Chartered Manager and Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute. He is also a member of the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Institute of Fire Engineers.