Gavin Tomlinson joined Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service in 1993, rising through the ranks until being appointed Chief Fire Officer in September 2019. Running a service serving over one million people across 1,000 square miles of Derbyshire is a full-time job, but Gavin has also recently taken on the role of Chair of the NFCC’s Protection and Business Safety Committee.

The Committee was until the end of 2020 chaired by Suffolk CFO Mark Hardingham. Mark will take over from Roy Wilsher as NFCC Chair in April. Gavin is excited to take on the Committee Chair role saying: “Mark has done a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances. I want to keep the momentum going and build on the great work he has done to date.”

Looking back to 2006 and the introduction of new fire safety legislation, Gavin recalls when he took over responsibility for fire protection in Derbyshire. He enjoyed working in an area where there was a mix of operational and technical skills. Often re-employing retired firefighters and working with career inspecting officers, fire protection was not seen as mainstream business. A lot has changed since then and now Gavin says that fire protection training and skills are core to the development of firefighters from day one and at each stage of their career progression.

Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service was in the third tranche of HMICFRS inspections and received its report in December 2019. Achieving a Good grading for protecting the public through fire regulation, the inspectors commended Derbyshire for its detailed protection strategy. The inspectors also praised the service for having a well-resourced fire protection function which is made up of a combination of staff with level 4 diplomas in fire safety working alongside business safety advisors and most of the service’s watch managers are competent to level 3 in fire safety.

The attention now paid to fire protection is in part due to the Grenfell Tower fire and the inspection reports that highlighted a lack of investment in this area across all fire and rescue services. Many, like Derbyshire, are rectifying the situation but it takes time, and the benefits will emerge in the long-term. For now, there is plenty of activity taking place within the NFCC and Gavin’s Committee is at the heart of it.

Protection Policy Reform Unit

A key element of the NFCC’s protection effort is the creation of the Protection Policy Reform Unit (PPRU). In Gavin’s new role, he oversees the work of the PPRU, which is led by London Fire Brigade Assistant Chief Officer, Dan Daly.

The NFCC secured funding from the government to establish the PPRU with the intention that it will provide the link between fire and rescue services and the government on fire safety matters. The objectives of the PPRU are to:

  1. Promote a consistent and coordinated approach to fire safety regulation
  2. Support and promote the swift remediation of buildings
  3. Support the government reform agenda
  4. Provide the NFCC with capacity to deal with new and emerging demands.

Fire and rescue services also received funding to support their work with complex and high-risk buildings. Gavin says that in Derbyshire his service used the money to pump prime training rather than employ more staff. Other services have taken different approaches.

The issue of competence is central to Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review into fire safety, which was published in 2018. The competence of fire inspecting officers is considered in detail in the more recent publication, Setting the Bar. Published in October 2020, Setting the Bar is the second and final report from the Competence Steering Group set up shortly after the Grenfell Tower fire.

The activity of working group 5, led by London Fire Brigade’s Adreena Parkin-Coates, resulted in a revision of the Competency Framework for Fire Safety Regulators. “It provides a framework for the development, maintenance and demonstration of competence of staff who regulate fire safety standards in all premises to which the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies, including higher risk residential buildings.” This explains why the term Fire Safety Regulators is used and not fire inspecting officer as not all enforcers are drawn from fire and rescue services. The Framework applies to England but is equally relevant to the devolved administrations as well.

Gavin says that his service has adopted the Framework and encourages all services to do the same. He is keen to stress: “It’s not just about enforcement, of course, education is key to ensuring those responsible for buildings know what they need to do.” The intention, says Gavin, is for the Framework to be adopted as a Fire Standard, meaning that it will be the benchmark for ‘what good looks like’ when the inspectors visit fire and rescue services in the future.

Lockdown Inspection Challenge

Lockdown challenged all fire and rescue services as they tried to maintain services in the face of a global pandemic. Going out and inspecting buildings as part of a risk-based inspection plan became incredibly difficult and many services resorted to carrying out virtual inspections. Gavin says this was the right thing to do in the initial phase of the pandemic, but as lockdown eased and buildings started to re-open, inspections had to re-start. Those responsible for buildings needed to ensure they were Covid-compliant and that in turn had the potential to impact on fire safety compliance; inspecting officers across the country have had to contend with the changes and ensure that Covid-safe was not at the expense of fire safety.

The NFCC produced a raft of new guidance for fire and rescue services to help them respond to the pandemic, including an overarching document setting out the Strategic Intention for Protection and a series of place specific guidance notes that have all been updated as the pandemic evolved. Gavin is overseeing the review of the guidance to ensure that they remain relevant. For a more detailed look at how fire and rescue services responded to Covid-19, see the NFCC report from Phil Garrigan on page 18.

While Gavin has a long-standing interest in fire protection and accepts that work closely related to the response to the Grenfell Tower fire is a significant part of the committee’s programme of work, he now has the chance to forge ahead with another of his passions – sprinklers in schools.

School Sprinklers

In November 2020, Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service signed a Statement of Intent with Derby City Council and Derbyshire County Council where they all committed to protecting schools in their area from fire. The statement includes an assurance that any new school they build will be fitted with sprinklers and the right fire safety measures. For Gavin, signing this statement is a significant milestone in the years he has spent campaigning for change locally; now as Committee Chair he has the chance to influence this policy from a national stage.

The timing is perfect, as the government is soon to revise Building Bulletin 100: design for fire safety in schools (BB100). The NFCC responded to the 2019 consultation on a technical review of BB100 and noted in its covering letter that revising BB100 would ensure it was aligned to wider changes to fire safety guidance made since the Grenfell Tower fire.

It is not just the NFCC that is urging the government to mandate sprinklers in schools. A recent report by Zurich Municipal Insurance stated that ‘schools in England are nearly twice as likely to suffer a blaze as other types of commercial building’. Zurich also published a parliamentary petition to encourage MPs to change the law so that sprinklers are compulsory in all new or refurbished schools in England. The petition remains open for signatures until March 1, 2021.

In June 2020, the government announced a major school rebuilding programme and Gavin says that this is an ideal opportunity to push for sprinklers to be mandatory in schools.

Reducing False Alarms

To add to the already busy to-do list for his committee, Gavin also wants to address the perennial problem of high levels of false alarms attended by fire and rescue services across the country. He refers to the inspection reports from HMICFRS where each one shows a stark graphic illustrating the number of incidents attended in the 12 months to December 31, 2018.

For his own service it shows that false alarms account for 41 per cent of all calls. This is close to the national average of 40 per cent highlighted in the 2019 State of Fire. While the absolute numbers of false alarms have fallen since 2010 as overall incident levels declined, the trend since 2015 is slowly creeping upwards. The State of Fire observes: ‘Services should have adopted the NFCC’s best practice guidance for dealing with these false alarms, but we found that not all had’. This is a good starting point for the conversation within Gavin’s committee, finding out what inhibits reductions in false alarms, sharing good practice so that the trend can be reversed in the long-term. Turning the guidance into a Fire Standard is also an option to be explored.

There is plenty of work for Gavin and his committee. Balancing out the demands of the areas described in this article and the other aspects of the committee’s work will be challenging, but Gavin is clear that communication is key to successfully influencing change. “You’ve got to make the message understandable, whether we’re talking to the Minister, to the general public or other fire and rescue services, we need to tailor our message. This sits at my feet now and I’m determined that our work will make a difference.”

Gavin concludes by saying he has no intention of just dipping his toe in the water; he is here for the long-term and not planning to retire any time soon. With this positive can-do attitude, he and his committee are likely to achieve a great deal.