Covid-19 has at least eclipsed the media obsession with Brexit, but at some point we will emerge from the pandemic only to find the issues arising from our European departure still there. Although transition hasn’t finished, it’s due to do so by the end of the year and our current statute prevents any extension.
It would be nice to think that our departure has had little or no impact on the UK Fire and Rescue Service (UKFRS) and indeed, from an introspective perspective, beyond a few supply and price issues, it probably hasn’t. I’d like to discuss the broader effect of it on our place as (one of) the world’s leading fire services and to challenge how long we will be able to claim such a title.
Since moving on from operational service in 2015, I’ve been fortunate enough to continue working in the resilience world as part of a highly regarded consultancy providing civil protection support to many international governments and emergency management authorities. The organisation’s growth has been nothing short of meteoric as it’s taken some of the very best leaders from UK and European Fire, Police and Emergency Management disciplines, forming them into advisory teams for all manner of issues relating to our sector. In doing this, though, little attention has been paid to nationality, focusing instead on acknowledged professional excellence.
Five years into this international adventure, this editorial has given me an excuse to draw breath for a moment and to look over my shoulder and reflect on this global perspective and to ask: Where has the UKFRS gone?
In our travels, we see global humanitarian initiatives through the United Nations being led by firefighters from the USA, mutual aid arrangements strengthening CBRN response by fire services across Europe, national fire services supporting our colleagues in Australia in their hour of need, Irish fire services leading on international school fire education programmes and the Netherlands Brandweer leading on progressive international professional development for senior fire officers. Many global initiatives are being led by our neighbours and partners.
We all want to feel that the UKFRS is one of the best in the world but to do that, we need to ensure an institutional learning culture and an open mind enough to identify good practices from elsewhere. Only then do we have a comparator against which to make a claim of excellence.
Events such as the Manchester Arena, Westminster Bridge, Salisbury and the Grenfell fire are well known to our international colleagues and are often studied in detail by them. Unfortunately, they don’t always attract the plaudits we would wish for. Lessons to learn can often be seen more clearly by those with a different background, whether it is how to avoid delayed responses, better multi-agency coordination, speeding up wide-area decontamination or the enforcement of effective fire-safety standards – our colleagues may have different and sometimes more effective solutions.
How much do we see UKFRS leaders on the international stage when engaged in global discussions – I’m not referring to conference speaking or ‘doing the circuit’ after a major incident (heaven forbid!) but participating in international forums and working groups for improvement and innovation of UKFRS. It won’t surprise you to know – almost never.
The UKFRS has so much to be proud of on the global stage – its hosting of UK ISAR to support United Nations deployments and seeding of the World Rescue Organisation (WRO) through the United Kingdom Rescue Organisation (UKRO) are just two examples, but, as Brexit sees us taking a step away from automatic inclusion in opportunities for international cooperation, it’s right to consider how we will engage and stay informed in future as our neighbours and international counterparts work together to improve.
Some indicators of health and ambition may well see us:
- Engaging more with the Federation of European Fire Officers Association (the FEU) and actually attending its meetings and working groups
- Supporting CEN and ISO standard committees for firefighting issues
- Visiting other fire and rescue services with an open mind and desire to learn
- Partnering and firefighter exchange schemes with international services
- Studying of overseas incidents and methods to be able to critique and compare UK capability
- Lobbying hard to encourage government to provide UK assets to UN and EU mutual aid mechanisms
- Demanding that UK government requests international mutual aid when it can help incident resolution and not being too proud to do so
- Growing the international pedigree of the Institution of Fire Engineers and using it as the heart of standard-setting and qualifications in the UK.
In my opinion, it will take professional dedication, humility and the will to swim against a nationalistic tide of complacency to ensure that our firefighters and the public alike get the truly world-class service they deserve. It will take its leaders to have the ambition and drive to engage in a meaningful manner beyond our own shores.
For more information, go to www.resilienceadvisors.eu