In an excerpt of his exclusive interview from the December/January issue of FIRE Magazine, Hertfordshire’s Director of Community Protection, CFO Roy Wilsher, talks about the evolution of FRS’ role, interoperability and future challenges:

FIRE: It’s been an exciting year for the Service, what are some of the key challenges you’ve faced both with the Chief Fire Officer’s Association and in Hertfordshire?

We’ve been taking on more and more work in CFOA as we move towards a so-called sector-led approach. Not that I’m particularly happy with that term ‘the sector’. What is ‘the sector’? Is it CFOA? Is it firefighters? Is it the IFE [Institution of Fire Engineers]? Is the Fire Sector Federation? Is it all of them? Is it part of them? I think we need to careful in the way we use that term. If you’re looking at designing something to fit into the National Framework, then you want all affected parties involved but if you’re looking at developing a ‘sector-wide’ USAR capability then it’s going to be more efficient if you don’t consult say, fire extinguisher manufacturers.

The term ‘sector’ is used a lot at the top-end of government with the health sector, the manufacturing sector etc, and at that top-end, surface level it’s appropriate but once you’re getting into some of the operational detail we need to be more specific about who we’re talking to, and about.

Fire: What are some of the main changes you’ve experienced in your time as Chief?

Even when we were a separate fire and rescue service, community safety was always an integral part of what we did – especially in Hertfordshire. What’s great about this area is that it has always been a hotbed of innovation and partnership working. You only have to look at concepts like Operation Spongepudding or ChiPs, and indeed our whole volunteer scheme to see how we’re get involved in the community and trying to bring in communities, like Sikhs or Polish, that the Service was previously finding hard to reach with fire safety messages.

That’s something that’s been building over the past few years. In 2005, we opened the new St Albans’ Community Fire Station and that had a purpose-built for members of the community to use, which was the first of its kind in the UK. Now we’ve got the LGBT groups meeting in Watford fire station because they view it as a safe place, so our firefighters do really make that effort to engage all sections of the community.

Fire: What is it about Hertfordshire that helps engender that spirit?

We try to give people freedom to innovate and local freedom of decision-making. Every now and then people will make mistakes, but we have a culture to point that out, try and put the mistake right without jumping up and down and knocking all the innovation and spirit out of them.

When you’re in a high-up management position you hear 100% of the bad news and 5% of the good news, so you’ve got to trust your staff at the stations. In a way, the fire and rescue service is localism in its purest form. Nobody knows the local area better than firefighters do and nobody better understands the different local issues that they will encounter in terms of community safety. Take for example, in East Herts you’d be looking at combating burning hay bales or fly-tipping hazardous material whereas in central Watford it’ll be completely different, looking at overcrowded homes and cooking fires. So if you tried to impose one centralised rule, it simply wouldn’t work.

Fire: Do you think we’re seeing a fundamental change in the role of firefighters?

My predecessor as director said it won’t be long before we’re calling ourselves the ‘Rescue and Fire Service’ because we’re doing so many more ‘rescues’ in the wider sense, be that RTCs (road traffic collisions), floods or even people trapped in their homes, and fire is becoming a much smaller part of the operational role; and that’s without even considering the community safety, health & wellbeing, public health sides that we link into as a Service. But the firefighting aspect still remains such an important part and the one we train for, which is one of the real challenges we face in terms of being fire-ready.

When I joined the Service some 31 years ago a lot of training was on-the-job; I was based at Barnet fire station and there was a substantive fire every week so I learned from experience. Now I’ve got some stations, which have to be there because of the risk factor, but the chances of any new firefighters based there attending a house fire are very slim so training those people to the level where they are capable of handling an incident efficiently, and there will be one in that area, is definitely tricky.

Fire: Given those training issues, along with the funding, when are you planning to recruit again?

Our current plan is for the backend of next year, there should be enough natural wastage by then to start looking at it again but you never know about the external pressures in terms of finance. We’re fortunate in Hertfordshire that in the latest round of cuts we weren’t hit as hard as other areas, but efficiency is a great driver for innovation and that’s what we’re striving to achieve in this area.

Fire: Are there any key changes you’d like to see in the future?

I’m a big fan of sprinklers so I’d definitely support the Welsh [Assembly] policy of sprinklers in all new-built houses. We have a county council policy of sprinklers in all council buildings and we have plans for hundreds of new houses in Hertfordshire over the next few years, so I’ve been telling the council: ‘you’ve either got the choice of spending more on new fire resources to cover these houses or you fit them with domestic sprinklers and not spend more on the service’.

But from the government’s point of view, there are builders out there saying it’s not cost-effective and we as a fire service know intuitively that it will be cheaper so it’s left for DCLG to hopefully keep an open-mind and think about it going forward. It’ll be interesting to see how it works in Wales and if that can form a test case for us to put to the building firms.

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