“It’s a canny challenge”: FIRE talks to Tyne and Wear’s Chief

Walking his rare Dutch Herder dog and battling against the sound of wind and passing cars, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service’s Chris Lowther talks to Political Editor Catherine Levin about the challenges of being a Chief Fire Officer

Chris joined Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service in 1997; he had always wanted to be a firefighter and he has been there ever since. He became Chief in 2017 and, given the high retirement rates of his peers, he is now one of the longer serving chiefs in the country. He also has a key role on the national stage heading up the Operations Committee of the National Fire Chiefs Council.

Reflecting on his tenure as Chief so far, Chris said: “I realised from the beginning that I had to work out what kind of Chief I wanted to be.” He said that he had no intention of putting in for the job when he was ACFO. Tom Capeling was Chris’s predecessor. He told Chris that being Chief was a lonely job. “He was right. You are number one and you’ve got to think so hard because of the impact a decision can make. I didn’t appreciate that before I started.”

Some of that loneliness can be alleviated by having 48 other chief fire officers to turn to. Chris agreed but said that because the turnover of chiefs is so high, this is a risk to the Fire and Rescue Service, particularly in terms of corporate memory. The solution, he said, lies in a change to the pension rules and that is certainly not trivial or at the top of the government’s to do list.

Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service has recently consulted with the public on its proposed integrated risk management plans. Chris calls the transformation of his service TWFRS 2025 and like all good transformation strategies, it includes pillars, in this case inclusion, an all-hazards approach to firefighting and digital and data transformation.

He makes a blunt and no-holds barred introduction to the subject of inclusion.

Diversity and Inclusion Challenge

“We have a majority white, male workforce and that’s not representative of society and must change. We need to ensure we attract a diverse group of people who represent the North East community. I know I am where I am, in part, because I am a white man and everything about the Fire Service and society historically was set up to allow people like me to succeed. That’s fundamentally wrong. I also have talent, skills and abilities and these should be the determining factors, not a person’s gender or for that matter any other characteristics or heritage. I’m really passionate about changing our focus.”

In the June edition of FIRE, there was a feature about the dearth of women principal officers. It included an interview with Tyne and Wear’s ACFO Lynsey McVay. She is one of only 20 women to hold an operational principal officer post in the UK. She is an outlier nationally and locally in Tyne and Wear, and Chris is a fierce supporter of Lynsey.

“I think Lynsey is one of the most talented fire officers I’ve ever come across.” That is quite a bold statement from Chris. He elaborated: “Lynsey is driven and has an ability to focus; she is extremely personable and really gets things done. She thinks in great depth which is what is necessary at the higher end of the Fire and Rescue Service. Lynsey will help drive and shape the future in this service. I don’t think she knows what impact she can have in the future.”

He recognised the difference between his journey to the top and that faced by women in the service. “Lynsey’s had to fight but not in the way that I’ve had to fight. It often feels like female fire officers feel they must constantly work to prove themselves because of their gender. That’s ridiculous.”

Chris said that the Fire and Rescue Service he joined 24 years ago no longer exists. He thinks that the recruitment of this new generation of firefighters offers an opportunity to drive change. He explained his approach to dealing with discrimination in his service and how it must be a welcoming place for anyone to work.

“There is no overt discrimination in my service. I would not tolerate it, that would be a dismissal issue. I’m not naïve enough to think there’s not numerous covert, subtle, systemic problems that I need to fix. I lead a culture where we address each and every one of them.”

Learning Organisation

One way, of course, that all fire and rescue services have learned about how to improve has been through inspection. Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service received its inspection report in June 2019 and was rated Good under all three pillars. Chris is sanguine about the inspection, as he anticipates their second visit later this year. “I consider inspection to be consultancy. We listen hard and we seek to improve.”

He explained with a refreshing honesty: “We need to know ourselves as a service. There were elements in the first inspection report that were a surprise to me.” He described the feedback from the inspectors about how the service deals with risk information and said it was unpleasant to hear the criticism. He is determined to improve things and has done so since then. This is all part of a service improvement plan that contains responses to both inspection findings and Grenfell recommendations.

He added that peer review within the family group (the Metropolitan services in his case) and the outputs from the NFCC’s National Operational Learning service are extremely important to the continuous improvement of his service.

“At the same time as committing to diversifying the workforce, I am also increasing the standards for recruiting firefighters. I want them to be skilled for the future and not just for now.”

Like many services, Tyne and Wear did not recruit firefighters for a long period of time and just two years ago ran its first recruitment campaign in over a decade. It was an opportunity to start on the journey to diversify the workforce. One third of the first cohort of 30 to go through training school did not fit Chris’s white, male norm of days gone by, so it is a good start.

Elevating Collaboration

Looking back on the experience of dealing with a global pandemic, Chris said it was a great opportunity to expand the way his service worked with other organisations during a time of crisis but also in the future. “We are more than just a fire and rescue service. I’m really keen on expanding our offer to the community and I’ll be working with police and local authorities to work much smarter as public servants.”

Having the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, Kim McGuiness, as a member of Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Authority helps the relationship at a political level.

Chris agreed it was helpful to have the PCC on the fire authority, but expressed strong views about the value of collaboration between services. “Collaboration must be meaningful and deliver benefits for communities and those involved or it’s not worth its salt. Integration is also what we need to be looking at.” He does not mean a PCC takeover of fire but a more integrated approach to providing a community response. He is quick to say it does not mean that fire should come under PCC governance, rather they should do more work together.

This leads nicely to a discussion about the Fire White Paper and what it might say about governance of fire and rescue services. The PCC for Northumbria covers both Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service and Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service, so combining them under a single PFCC would be a challenge, not least because Northumberland is part of the county council and that brings an extra layer of complexity. Chris says it will take a great deal of political will and cash to make any changes in the North East.

Reform and the White Paper

Responding to a request to speculate about what might be in the White Paper, Chris shared what he had said to the Fire Minister in a recent open forum. “All I’ve heard for years from chiefs, from civil servants and from politicians is the word reform, but in terms of tangible differences I haven’t seen anything done. In the meantime, I’m going to get on with reforming my service so that it’s fit for the future and meeting community needs.” He makes the point that ministers and civil servants all move on before anything gets done and he is right, it is destabilising for any long-term reform.

The White Paper is likely to cover the recommendations contained in Sir Tom Winsor’s State of Fire report. One of which is to revisit the role of the firefighter – a controversial topic at the best of times. The Tripartite Agreement between the NFCC, FBU and the National Employers demonstrated what additional activities firefighters could do. Whether that translates into a long-term proposition is going to be harder to work through. Indeed, if fire and rescue services can get their staff to volunteer to become vaccinators without a national agreement, then perhaps that is the way forward. It is clear that when a major event occurs the Fire and Rescue Service can and does play an important role.

Chris has clear views on this topic. “I wouldn’t ask any of my staff to do anything outside of any health and safety regime. I wouldn’t ask them to do anything that is outside of improving community values. We also need to recognise that things change. What I did as a firefighter 24 years ago, firefighters don’t do now. The need to train and prepare as well as focusing on community outcomes is critical.”

Festival of Rescue

Bringing the interview to a close and with three miles left to walk, Chris enthuses about this year’s UKRO competition. Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service is hosting UKRO in Newcastle on September 17-18. This is a huge source of pride for Chris. “I really want to showcase the North East. I’ve termed it the Festival of Rescue as it’s more than just a competition, I want to immerse the community in fire and vice versa. This is legacy stuff for my service. I want to create something people enjoy and remember.”

He has great ambitions: “I want every kid to want to be a firefighter after they’ve been to the Festival of Rescue.”

Chris said he is aiming to bid to host the World Rescue Challenge in 2025. With the president of the World UKRO body attending this year’s challenge, he added: “I want it. I will be using all my North East charm, as well as showcasing the UKRO 2021 Festival of Rescue event to demonstrate what the North East has to offer and the warm welcome that everyone can expect.”

If Chris’s passion is a measure by which to gauge his success in both hosting this year’s games and securing the 2025 challenge, then he is pretty much there already.

For more information on this year’s competition visit: www.ukro.org



Three ways in which Tyne and Wear is investing in its future

Tyne and Wear FRS report on how it is investing in improving frontline response, technology and bricks and mortar

Investing in the frontline

We are proud to have the fastest response times in the country to primary fires. To assist our response and improve it even more, we have added 14 new appliances to our fleet.

Designed and specified in conjunction with their firefighters, these appliances introduce a strict ‘clean cab policy’ aiming to minimise the presence of firefighting contaminants, which has seen the creation of an allocated decontamination locker to store dirty PPE and equipment.

In addition, all appliance crew cabs have been fitted with gas monitoring equipment. These pioneering safety adaptations will also be introduced into the fleet’s additional ten appliances that will follow in due course meaning that all frontline appliances and firefighters will benefit from the clean cab principle.

Keeping with the decontamination theme, we have invested in a new portable handheld decontamination capability that will assist greatly when decontamination is required on the incident ground.

New technological investment has also been important to ensure the safety of firefighters with every appliance being equipped with two thermal scanners to assist the officer in charge and breathing apparatus crews to gain a greater insight to the fire development and conditions. This works hand in glove with our all-hazards approach to firefighter safety.

To ensure our crews are protected and to assist with operational debriefs, all appliance incident commanders have access to body worn cameras. These cameras are also issued to prevention and protection teams in addition to flexible duty officers. The body worn cameras aim to deter people from anti-social behaviour and are used to capture key evidence. The material can also be used for post incident debriefs and shared with police colleagues, if required.

A key investment in technology has been with our command and control vehicle. The facility can monitor the incident ground from fixed, portable and UAV (drone) cameras with the information being readily available to the incident commander and transmitted across Microsoft Teams.

The command and control vehicle also has the capability to view CCTV cameras from Newcastle City Centre in collaboration with Newcastle City Council that allows us to monitor emerging situations more effectively. Its integration into fire control has been beneficial in identifying locations of incidents and updating crews along the way. This is extremely useful for major incidents including any potential threats from marauding terrorist attacks. This resource is something we are looking to develop across all local authorities.

Through co-locating Sunderland City Council’s CCTV Control Room to Barmston Mere Training Centre in Washington, we have the potential to further develop these ongoing relationships with local authorities across the region to assist in incident command, community safety and reducing anti-social behaviour.

Another tool to assist incident command decision-making is the opportunity to directly source images from the National Police Air Service Police helicopters when operating in the Northumbria Police area. Footage from these helicopters can be downloaded through to the command and control unit giving the teams on the ground invaluable intelligence.

Ken Corbett, Head of Operations, said: “It is all about gaining situational awareness as a picture paints a thousand words. If you can monitor live CCTV material, then it can help massively when deploying resources, and for firefighter and public safety.”

Investing in technology

Working in conjunction with an external provider, our ICT development and Learning and Organisational Development teams have designed and built a new, bespoke in-house competency recording system that will provide staff with a new way to document their aptitude against their role map and additional role related competencies.

We have been using our current competency recording programme for more than 15 years and following a review we decided that a change was required to create a software platform designed by firefighters for firefighters to provide the most appropriate solution.

Quality Assurance Manager, Chris Swift-Hunter, works as part of the close-knit team that over recent years has helped to bring the new CRM (competency recording matrix) system to life. He said: “The idea was to develop a piece of software that allows the individual to document a better quality of evidence, in an efficient manner that would satisfy their own personal journey.”

We brought in external expertise to assist with the process and worked closely with them to ensure all the key factors were in place to produce the system.

Following investment in our in-house ICT team, we have been able to build the system allowing us to identify areas that are required for development and then deliver it ourselves; this will enable the system to grow with our needs.

Chris explained: “An additional bonus about CRM is the long-term financial benefits, as it will mean no licence fees will have to be paid as we will own the intellectual property on the software. After three years it will have paid for itself and will then become a saving year upon year.

“As we’ve devised the overall platform and structure of the software, it means that we can seek opportunities to market the product and potentially sell on the concept to external users to bring in additional revenue for us.”

The programme needs to undergo initial testing but once this is complete, there is no reason why other fire and rescue services could not use CRM to help record their competency levels too. Chris added: “The programme is still a work in progress and in its infancy, but these are exciting times as the feedback we’ve received from crews has been very positive. They have been able to see for themselves first-hand how they are able to use the new software and how it will benefit their own personal development. We are definitely going in the right direction.”

The software ultimately allows firefighters to record and monitor their National Occupational Standards and role-related competencies, enabling them to keep their skill set up to date. They can tick off their own individual role map that identifies which competency areas the firefighters have met.

We have made a lot of progress recently; we are confident that CRM can be fully released as our sole competency recording software in Tyne and Wear over the next few months.

Investing in bricks and mortar

We are investing in our estate, so it is fit for 21st century public service. A major example of this investment is the creation of a new Tri-Station in South Tyneside.

The new state-of-the-art multi-functional facility known as Hebburn Tri-Station will be the first of its kind that will be dedicated and designed from the ground-up in the region to house three emergency services: Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service, North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) and Northumbria Police. Integration between the three partners has been a key feature of the design with all partners sharing the same workspaces.

The Tri-station is our largest capital project in recent years with a significant investment of more than £5 million.

The term Tri-Station means an integrated facility, not just co-location as it will enable collaboration, supporting all three blue light emergency services to operate under one roof.

The new station will be designed as a carbon neutral building with energy sourced from solar roof panelling and ground source heat pumps. This reflects our commitment to a greener environment and is a way of reducing our carbon footprint.

If the Hebburn Tri-Station project is granted planning approval, then the building could open by summer 2023.