As this issue is published, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union will have just been completed. Despite the fact that the momentous decision to leave was made less than four years ago it is sometimes hard to believe the word ‘Brexit’ did not previously exist or feature in the world’s vocabulary such is its prolific use in our current language.
For our wide range of UK-based professionals, services and manufacturers the work to achieve a smooth transition to serve what must remain an uncertain marketplace with equally uncertain market conditions will undoubtedly have presented unplanned challenges during a period where the profession has had its own challenges to face. Leaving the European Union will be the start of a longer transition, which we hope will lead to new opportunities.
As a profession, Fire Engineering consistently demonstrates that it can transcend borders, language and politics, and as we enter the next era in the United Kingdom’s history I have no doubt those engaged in the profession will continue to work tirelessly with our European and International colleagues in making our world fire safe.
Staying with the international theme, there can surely be no one who hasn’t been touched by the catastrophic scenes of wildfires ravaging Australia. Images of communities razed to the ground, entire species of wildlife facing extinction and displacement on a monumental scale present the Australian people, their government and their firefighters with a countrywide disaster. Can there be any remaining doubt about the here-and-now impact of global warming amongst free-thinking individuals? What does this mean for the future of fire engineering in the UK and globally?
On home territory Grenfell must remain in our focus. Phase 2 of the enquiry will commence on 27 January and in December the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced that the Grenfell Tower Inquiry is now entering a pivotal stage, expanding its focus from the night of the tragedy to consider important wider issues around the refurbishment and management of the Tower.
In May 2019, the Prime Minister announced the appointment of two new members to the inquiry panel: Ms Thouria Istephen, a Chartered Engineer and Partner at Foster and Partners, and Professor Nabeel Hamdi. Professor Hamdi stood down from the panel in December, a decision that disappointed the survivors’ group Grenfell United.
Professor Hamdi’s replacement, Ms Benita Mehra, Chartered Engineer and former President of the Women’s Engineering Society has since also stood down. This followed Grenfell United highlighting links between Arconic, who supplied cladding to Grenfell Tower and the Women’s Engineering Society who had received funding for an apprentice conference from the Arconic Foundation, the charitable arm of the company. On stepping down Ms Mehra said she recognised and respected the depth of feeling created by the link following her appointment.
I have previously raised my concerns over the focus, language and coverage of Phase One of the Inquiry. I can only hope that as Phase Two commences and progresses the interest of the public and the coverage by mass media remains as focused on those responsible in the years, months, weeks and days leading up to the disaster as it did on those who responded and had to make decisions in the seconds, minutes and hours after the catastrophic failings of design, manufacture and construction in Grenfell Tower.
Moving to Fire and Rescue Services in England, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) published the third and final tranche of inspection reports covering the final 15 fire and rescue services to undergo an HMI-led inspection.
On 15 January HMICFRS published a report entitled ‘State of Fire and Rescue: The Annual Assessment of Fire and Rescue in England 2019’. The report draws on the findings of the inspections of the 45 fire and rescue services in England to provide an overall view of the state of the fire and rescue sector.
The author of the report is Her Majesty’s Chief inspector of Fire and Rescue Services, Sir Thomas Winsor. The report calls for ‘significant reforms’ across fire and rescue services and a need for clarity over ‘the role of the fire sector’ but it also highlights that Services ‘are generally highly skilled and able to respond to all kinds of challenges’. The report acknowledges that the sector has not been formally inspected for 12 years and suggests that there are barriers to becoming more efficient and effective.
The report highlights variations in standards of fire cover and recommends the sector should ‘take steps to address some of this variation’. This recommendation will undoubtedly be welcomed by those who have seen the demands of reduced budgets diminish their previously established response arrangements. Such reductions have been almost impossible to defend in the absence of a commonly agreed national standard.
The area of fire-safety enforcement has drawn attention with a recognition that in many services this vital area of work has been seriously diminished. Again, for many Services, the reduction of enforcement activity has been a means of moving resources to areas deemed more critical.
Both of the above areas have been necessitated in many Services by budget reductions and it is refreshing therefore to see the financial disparity and impact of budget reductions acknowledged in the report.
An area of criticism which unsurprisingly drew wider media attention surrounded a ‘regrettable lack of diversity’ and ‘some examples of toxic culture that have gone unchecked’. The continuing lack of diversity is undoubtedly regrettable and, as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, the continuing presence of ‘toxic culture’ is inexcusable and has to be addressed at all levels but most prominently from the top of an organisation down. A former Chief Fire Officer once told me that in the Service ‘we promote what we permit’. This is an occasion where everyone working in the Fire and Rescue Service needs to hold a mirror to themselves and ask, ‘what am I promoting and what am I permitting?’
Sir Thomas Winsor’s report must make uncomfortable reading for some and in this editorial I have only scratched some of the headline content, but as the foundation from which to reform, improve and develop it must surely be welcomed. We now have 45 Fire and Rescue Services being assessed against a common set of criteria, each of which will now be working on an improvement plan. I know from conversations with colleagues across the FRS and HMICFRS that the system is far from perfect, but, like it or not, the FRS does now have national government scrutiny and interest and an impetus for common improvement.
Over the past decade the links between cancer and firefighting as an occupation have become clearer. With evidence that firefighters are twice as likely to be exposed to toxins from fire than the general population and to develop cancer as a result, there is a clear need for awareness and changes to post-incident decontamination. Exposure is not confined to attendance on the fireground with research showing harmful toxins containing carcinogens can often be found on Personal Protective Equipment (fire kit), firefighters’ skin and operational equipment. With work ongoing to develop guidance, firefighters must be encouraged to properly decontaminate themselves, their clothing and equipment after each potential exposure.
We are all engaged in promoting and developing a world and future that is safer from fire and its effects. Let us not forget to look after ourselves and each other on our individual journeys.
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