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On your marks – UK Fire, running for Firefighter safety

When I was approached to write the inaugural editorial of a new fire-sector publication I have to admit to being a little surprised. I had to ask the obvious question: “Why me, surely there are several more eminent and influential people who should have such an accolade?

I was told that the intention was to ensure that UK Fire is circulated free to fire stations throughout the UK and therefore available to all UK firefighters. More importantly, he emphasised the intention to make firefighter safety a continuous and dominant theme. He also added that I was approached as a respected and independent voice; and now I think I began to understand. However, the reality is that firefighter safety embraces a broad and varied range of governance, organisation, influence, belief and opinion. It is writing the verses for this broad church that now challenges the editorial team of UK Fire.

Like so many of my contemporaries before me, I have often had difficulty in describing this broad church. But recently, having had the privilege to observe and comment on the efforts of one of the UK’s most forward-looking and innovative fire and rescue services’ new firefighter safety strategy, I was reminded of a presentation I gave several years ago. It was at a national conference where the leadership of UK fire services had once again gathered to re-visit the broad church of firefighter safety. There I described it as a relay race that we are all in together. A race in which nobody can afford to drop the baton. It is to this analogy I will turn in setting expectations for UK Fire.

First out of the blocks has to be the strongest, most reliable of race starters but not necessarily the fastest member of the team. It is the block runner who should set the minimum pace that no other runner can err from. This is the one member of the team that above all others must be relied upon to ensure the minimum pace of firefighter safety is set in this, the initial leg of the relay. Legislators, designers, engineers and architects must use their knowledge, skills and wisdom to ensure the firefighter safety baton is not dropped. It is they who select the components from which the baton is made and establish the importance of its constituent materials. Its design, weight, size and shape are what enable its safe passage from the starting-block runner to the anchor-leg runner. UK Fire should use its commentary to see that they do and hold them to account when they drop the baton.

But the foundations of firefighter safety established by the block runner have to be handed on to the next leg runner. The handover of the baton has to be flawless. Representing local governance and ‘policy makers’ the second-leg runner’s challenge is to be aware of everything going on around them that could thwart the team’s efforts. In our analogy they have to ensure the components that constitute the firefighter safety baton are delivered in a responsible and focused way by observing the ‘Safe Person Principles’. Some relay-team coaches would argue that the second runner should be the fastest sprinter in the team. Others say they should be third fastest, but what really matters is that the second runner is certainly capable of seeing way beyond the finish line; that they have the wisdom of foresight and spatial vision that ensures that nobody drops the baton. In our analogy it is this runner who ensures the final two are adequately informed, equipped, trained, prepared and able to finish the race with the baton in hand.

Here UK Fire can set the benchmark for executive officers, technicians and designers that ensures the best people are using their wisdom to deliver the firefighter safety baton to those who will need it. Equipment designers and procurers ensure that as far as possible the last-leg runner cannot drop the baton they provide, that the third- and final-leg runners are the right people, in the right place with the right support infrastructure and training that keeps a firm grasp on the baton in the next two handovers.

The handover of the firefighter safety baton on the completion of the second leg is to what the majority of athletics writers describe as the slowest athlete of the team. In our analogy this is the supervisor or manager who becomes commander. This is the runner who not only has overall responsibility and authority for managing incident operations and the safety of all present but also has to achieve those responsibilities in the fast-moving, emotionally charged and information-limited environment of the incident ground. Little wonder then that the third-leg runner is described as the slowest runner, or perhaps in our analogy the more ‘considered’ in their responsibilities to maintain the pace and not drop the baton. It is the third runner who must ensure that, after calling upon their repertoire of knowledge and experience to make judgements when sending firefighters into the fundamentally unsafe conditions of the incident environment, they have a firm grip of the firefighter safety baton.

It will be the role of UK Fire to demonstrate to the sector the means by which the best possible people can make the best possible decisions and meet the highest standards of performance. This role should include the means by which they can maintain the mental and physical resilience demanded of them and at every opportunity headlines best practice.

Finally, we get to the last leg, the anchor leg. Having been handed the baton it is firefighters who, more often than not, run the final leg of the firefighter safety relay. Some sports writers describe the leg-four runner as the ‘fighter’ in the team: they must be able to finish the race, cross the finishing line and ensure that they are on the winning team. This makes the qualities of the last-leg runner the most important. They have to be able to start their run home at exactly the right time and exactly the right position of knowledge, skill and understanding. Their response to the ‘hand over’ command from the leg-three runner has to be understood in all its stated detail; dropping the baton here is not an option. In fact this athlete needs to be able to maintain their running form under the most extreme and critical of mental and physical pressures. It could be said they have to be the most resilient of all team members because once the baton is in the hand of this last-leg runner there is no one left to pass it on to.

The responsibilities of those who handle the baton before it reaches the final runner are no less onerous but here the team of UK Fire faces its greatest challenge. Its role in this relay is one of coach and referee. The optimum performance of a 4 x 100 relay team relies on the judgements, knowledge, experience and skill of coach, and referee. Making the right content choices, the lane lines along which this race must be run, the pages of UK Fire can lead to improved relay-team performance. The challenges are: how to make a difference; how to ensure the knowledge and wisdom gained in supporting the first three runners is accessible to the final-leg runner; and once achieved, how to ensure they are better informed, and in turn have a voice so that they are both able to contribute to and challenge debate in the pages of UK Fire, and that they are able to ask the fundamental ‘W’ questions of who, what, when, where and, most importantly, WHY?

I welcome the team of UK Fire to the race and like so many others – for my analogy call us ‘pundits’ – I will observe and comment on the way they meet this challenge.

For more information, go to www.billgough.co.uk

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Bill Gough was one of the longest-serving operational officers in the UK Fire Service. Researching and writing about Firefighter safety for many years he has become a respected independent voice. His contribution to firefighter safety has gained national recognition and was described as “indescribably powerful” in the citation of his award of the Queens Fire Service Medal.