Ever the optimist: Chief retires leaving Mid and West Wales punching above its weight
After 37 years of service, CFO Chris Davies is retiring. Political Editor Catherine Levin talks to him about his career and finds him fizzing with energy.
It is not often that an interview leads to fond recollections of summer holidays, ice cream and monks, but for Chris Davies, protecting the monastery on Caldey Island off the western fringes of Wales is just one part of the day job. His service covers a massive part of the UK, coming in at 12,000 sq km of land and an equally impressive 650km of coastline. It is a rural idyll but far from quiet in terms of its ambitions.
When Chris retires at the end of March, he will leave a service where fire calls have reduced to such a low level that the volume of flooding responses may soon be greater; and already fire calls are vastly outstripped by the number of medical responses. The extent of this may one day make the word ‘fire’ in the title of this organisation redundant: the Fire and Rescue Service Chris joined in 1984 is unrecognisable to the one he leaves in 2022.
CFO Chris Davies says fire services need to be better at sharing what they are doing
A discussion about the changing role of the firefighter has never seemed more relevant.
In England, that debate is largely framed by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue (HMICFRS) where Sir Thomas Winsor was so concerned about defining the role of firefighters, he made it one of his six recommendations in his first and subsequent State of Fire reports. And as reported in last month’s issue of FIRE, it remains unanswered by those charged with sorting it out.
By contrast, the Welsh Government is making great strides in addressing the role of the modern-day firefighter and has set up a broadening the role working group that includes Chris, principal officer representatives from the other two Welsh services, the Welsh Ambulance Service and NHS Wales.
“We’re in the 21st century and when firefighters go into hazardous zones, we have no idea where they are. For me, that’s just not right”
Chris says that this is one of the most pressing issues for him and his successor, Roger Thomas: “The role has to diversify. The pandemic showed we can help health and the education work we do is phenomenal.”
Together, they have developed a specification – not a job description, as Chris was keen to point out – for discussion with the trade unions. There is a real desire at ministerial level to broaden the role of firefighters to more formally recognise work that has taken place across Wales for the past 20 years. Chris says that the Fire Brigades Union is supportive “in principle”, but of course with so many on-call firefighters in Mid and West Wales (MAWW), the view of the FRSA is equally as important. The key issue is remuneration.
Ministers in Wales must decide how much they are willing to pay, to have discussions with the trade unions and get to a place where all sides are content. Pondering on the last few weeks of his tenure, Chris remarks: “I am the eternal optimist and I’d like to get this to a point where there is a deal before I’ve gone.” This has the potential to see changes to the Grey Book, but that of course sets out national terms and conditions and these changes are just being talked about in Wales.
The discussions are focused on three specific areas: out of hospital cardiac arrest, non-injured fallers and the transition from home fire safety checks to safe and well visits. Chris says that any changes to the role of firefighters need to be affordable, while recognising: “We have history of working in these areas. It’s about utilising firefighter skills. I have more medical calls to support the Welsh Ambulance Service than fire calls and RTAs.”
While these on-going discussions are firmly centred on health, the broader fire prevention arena also needs attention. Sir Thomas Winsor warned of reductions in home fire safety checks and the impact that may have on wider fire prevention activity in English fire and rescue services. Chris talks about this in slightly different terms.
“We need to focus on fire prevention. The bigger risk in Wales is in residential care and sheltered housing. Vulnerable people are discharged from hospital and for some, their medical conditions deteriorate to the extent they need to be in care homes. With our ageing population, there isn’t enough of the right accommodation for them, and they remain in their homes.”
And there of course lies the risk – one that fire and rescue services are well placed to manage, working alongside partners in the health and social care sector. It makes sense to broaden the role to acknowledge the changes in communities. “We are trying to relieve the burden on the health sector; using our skills to assist with that.” Chris explains that this extends further into looking at indicators around loneliness and isolation, identifying pathways to help those in need. “It is hugely complex, but it’s the right thing to do.”
“I had a vision a few years ago that when firefighters turn up to a building that’s on fire, they would have some form of body worn technology so that when they go inside, we can track their location”
Community is clearly important to Chris; it comes up a lot during the interview. Chris was brought up in South Wales and is the third generation of firefighters in his family. Chris started his career in South Glamorgan Fire Service before joining South Wales on the amalgamation of Welsh fire services in 1996.
After a stint on the New Dimension programme in the early 2000s, he returned on temporary promotion to Area Manager. Prior to this he had always used his father’s rank markings, but with his father retiring as a Divisional Officer (Group Manager now), he told Chris: “You’re on your own now, son.”
In 2008, Chris made the move to Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, where he rose through the ranks to become Chief Fire Officer in 2014.
Looking back on his career, he identifies some of the high points including receiving a Chief Fire Officer’s Commendation in the late 1980s after rescuing a young boy from a house fire. He looks back fondly on his time teaching at the Fire Service College in the late 1990s and the period he spent in central government as part of the New Dimension programme, working on improving resilience in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
“Working on the New Dimension programme broadened my view of the Fire and Rescue Service. It was an opportunity to show how adaptable the Fire and Rescue Service is and the added value we can bring beyond putting out fires and pulling people out of cars. It threw me into the political world as well.”
The Welsh Perspective
During this time, Fire Service policy was devolved from Westminster to the Welsh Government. With just three fire and rescue services in Wales, the relationship between them and the government is quite different to their peers in England.
Another major difference for Welsh fire and rescue services is the absence of an inspectorate. The Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser in Wales is Dan Stephens, former Chief Fire Officer in Merseyside. He advises the government and has a close working relationship with Chris along with CFO Huw Jakeway in South Wales and the recently returned and promoted CFO Dawn Docx in North Wales.
Having talked about the high points, Chris reflected on a low point: “I joined a club that no Chief Fire Officer wants to join: the death of a firefighter.” Josh Gardner was a 35-year-old firefighter who died when he was thrown into the sea after two speed boats crashed during a training exercise near Milford Haven.
He describes the emotional impact that Josh’s death in September 2019 had on everyone in the service and on him personally. Chris says there had not been a firefighter fatality in his service in decades.
Technology and Firefighter Safety
Firefighter safety is an important area for any fire and rescue service and Chris is a huge advocate for using technology to improve outcomes for his staff and the communities they serve. He thinks there is a long way to go: “We’re in the 21st century and when firefighters go into hazardous zones, we have no idea where they are. For me, that’s just not right.”
In the January 2019 edition of FIRE, former MAWW Group Manager Steve McLinden described the work that he was doing under Chris’s leadership to drive technological innovation in his service. Using the now rather dated title for the work – T2020 – the intention was to use money from the government through one of its seed corn funding initiatives and work with tech companies to resolve fundamental problems like tracking firefighters in buildings.
“We’re really punching above our weight. It doesn’t matter where you are in the country, we need to be better at sharing what we are doing”
Chris explains: “I had a vision a few years ago that when firefighters turn up to a building that’s on fire, they would have some form of body worn technology so that when they go inside, we can track their location. That technology would also track basic physiology, such as heart rates, temperatures and so on. By monitoring their location and their health it would reduce the risk they are exposed to while still rescuing people and protecting property.”
He was told the technology exists, but it was not stable in hostile environments. By using government money from the Cabinet Office’s GovTech fund, he was able to get industry interested in solving the problems. “Five years on, we haven’t achieved my vision, but I’d like to think things are happening and are in place and it will eventually get there.” That work has now passed to the National Fire Chiefs Council to oversee for the benefit of all fire and rescue services.
It is no surprise when Chris says that he has bought two of Microsoft’s HoloLens devices to enhance firefighter training in another way. Currently retailing at $3,500 each, and looking like a pair of very expensive glasses, Chris explains how they work: “They are an immersive technology, a next generation virtual reality tool using holographic images. They use software to represent an environment for someone to operate in. We can use it for our officers in a training environment to expose them to risk that they would not normally be exposed to. It’s a mind-blowing experience.”
He also sees holographic images being useful in the built environment as 2D maps are transformed and uploaded on to mobile data terminals on fire appliances. This will also benefit fire safety inspecting officers. He says the only restraint here is recruiting experienced technicians to do the conversion work.
All of which begs the question, how is all this innovation happening in the middle of Wales? This work is very understated, but is it a deliberate policy by Chris? Chris pauses before answering this. “I wanted to put MAWW on the map. We’re really punching above our weight. It doesn’t matter where you are in the country, we need to be better at sharing what we are doing.”
It is hard to see how Chris can simply stop on March 31. His energy levels are through the roof and surely, he must have a plan for what comes next? “I don’t know,” he responds, “I’m open to offers.” Steve McLinden retired and almost immediately started working for tech company Unblur. Maybe Chris will do something similar; someone should snap him up, because at 56-years-old, he’s not retiring to a golf course any time soon.
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