International Fire Professional editor Andrew Lynch reports from the Institution of Fire Engineers Examinations Consultation Event at the University of Warwick:

“This is a hugely important day for the IFE,” said Chairman Peter Holland CBE FIFireE as he opened the consultation day, emphasising that the emergence of examinations has “come a long way in a short space of time.”

By the close of day he added that it was also an important day for the Fire and Rescue Service. This was evidenced by the wide-ranging contribution from the 33 fire and rescue services represented who were as one in expressing the value of providing a benchmark for underpinning knowledge, essential to today’s firefighters.

Inevitably, the consultation exercise had to be grounded in the reality of past failures and the demise of fire examinations, referenced by the likes of the passing of the Fire Services Examination Board (FSEB). It was a mistake, Mr Holland emphasised. “We called ourselves a profession yet did not have underpinning examinations to support that.”

The reversal, however, has been swift, said Mr Holland. In 1997/98, the IFE was licensed by the Engineering Council and recognition by Ofqual “put us in a different place. The robustness of the exams takes some believing,” he informed, stating that it is a step forward from the FSEB.

Over 7,300 exams were taken in 2013, rocketing from just a few hundred after the Bain Review and representing a steady increase year on year from just over 4,000 in 2009.

Fire Service Challenges

Vij Randeniya OBE MIFireE, President of the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA), agreed with the Chairman’s criticism of past failures, describing the demise of exams as a “real, real mistake”. However, he acknowledged that at the time “it could have been argued both ways”.

Going forward, he said the landscape had changed so much that no book has been written on the direction of travel: “We have to write it ourselves”. Against the backdrop of budgetary restrictions, Mr Randeniya outlined the catalogue of challenges facing fire and rescue services, which are facing common problems, he said, but are coming up with a range of solutions.

These include Cleveland’s mutual, Gloucestershire looking at working with the ambulance service, Northamptonshire working with the Police and Crime Commissioners office, Devon and Somerset’s merger and Scotland’s move to a singular service. “You can’t just say no, that is nihilistic,” he said, although he stated that CFOA’s view was that mutualisation was not right for most fire and rescue services.

However, the impact of cuts has now begun to eat into the frontline capability, he said, requiring a smaller, more competent workforce. The training and expertise required by firefighters has moved to an all new level, he said, requiring a benchmark of underpinning knowledge. Mr Randeniya pointed to the outcome of inquiries into Atherstone and Shirley Towers which have shown the phenomenon of Rapid Temperature Acceleration.

“We require a more kinetic type of firefighter who has cognitive ability to process information in stressful environments and be able to compute when things have changed. There is a need for robust, technical knowledge, underpinned by knowledge, which is where exams come in.”

Mr Randeniya said that we may be asking too much of one individual and there may be a need for specialists. “Or have we set the bar too low when it comes to competence? Is it at a ‘C’ level when we need an ‘A’?”

Scope and Purpose
In response IFE Chief Executive Louise Craig MSc said the Institution is aware of the threats facing operational response, citing modern methods of construction and Rule 43 letters as key examples of why there is a need to refresh content and seek the views of the Fire and Rescue Service. “Engagement in the IFE is really important,” she said, “as we have a wide¬-range of experts and a lot can be learned from engaging these parties.”

Pointing to new qualifications and updating content for crew, watch and station managers in particular, she said there needed to be a greater focus on incident command, as well as clearer mapping to national occupational standards. “The main aim is to engage with the Service to ensure we are meeting your needs,” she said.

“It is important to see something tangible afterwards. We will provide a summary report, which will be made public in the summer, outlining how we intend to go forward.”

Qualifications for Operational Response
London Fire Brigade Assistant Commissioner Steve Hamm CEng FIFireE went straight to the crux of the matter when he said there is a clear “role and place for underpinning knowledge of operational response.”

Mr Hamm said the exam system used to flourish in the IFE, but when the FSEB was dismantled there was a business case and rationale behind it: “As Vij said, one that could have been argued both ways. I felt instinctively back then that not having exams didn’t feel right. Now we are creating a business case for exams.”

Although he said that operational response in the UK is good, “it is fluid and changing, it can’t stand still and is in constant flux,” hence the need for flexibility. The real problem, he said, was in “squaring the circle” between the procedural basis of UK operational response – “born out of blood, sweat and tears” – and the need for improved processing power of the firefighter of the future, or “the thinking firefighter”.

Whilst procedure had brought safe systems of work, there are also restrictions and increasing criticism of fire and rescue services at major incidents, especially when there is no deviation from prescribed practices. “The business case for exams is the need to benchmark thinking firefighters. That processing needs knowledge and understanding.”

Mr Hamm outlined how every function of a firefighter’s operational response is involved in mechanics or hydraulics and so engineering examinations are fundamental to that underpinning knowledge.

Mr Hamm proposed changes to the examinations hinged around operations, the built environment and human behaviour, leadership and incident command, and fire engineering science, with a greater emphasis on clearer signage and updated content to reflect Fire Service operations.

Fire Safety and Fire Engineering Qualifications
Devon and Somerset Deputy Chief Fire Officer Neil Gibbins QFSM FIFireE closed the presentations by bringing the efficiency of fire safety activity into full focus. “The success of driving down deaths and injuries is because of the development in understanding buildings and legislation such as the Fire Safety Order – it is not down to fitter firefighters and faster fire engines.”

Indeed, he said the Fire Safety Order is the “biggest change in our lifetime,” which coincidentally came at the same time as the demise of the FSEB and “new ways of doing business”.

Echoing concerns of previous speakers, Mr Gibbins said the fire protection world is under the microscope as well: “Although we have not been dragged into court, it is likely to happen at some point.”

The information which will be provided by the Building Information Management system is a great asset for fire engineers, Mr Gibbins explained. “We should be involved in that loop from the design stage,” he said, as all the structural information would be made available instantly.

Mr Gibbins proposed two new qualifications mapped to national occupational standards: a Level 3 Diploma Fire Investigation and Level 4 Certificate Fire Investigation. The four proposed fire safety units would comprise: Fire protection, warning, lighting and means of escape; Built environment and human behaviour; Prevention, risk and management of fire safety; and legislation, guidance and enforcement. He also proposed mapping titles directly across to the Competency Council’s competency criteria for fire risk assessors.

For more information on the Fire Examinations Consultation contact: exams@ife.org.uk