Chair's Blog

16-05-19

It's a matter of health and safety

It is a beautiful day outside as I sit down to write this blog; the sun is shining, the trees have their full canopy and what passes for wildlife in a north London garden is enjoying this late spring day.  It is also Mental Health Awareness Week. There are days and weeks set aside to raise awareness of many fantastic causes, in fact next week is Sprinkler Awareness Week.  But Mental Health Awareness Week really got me thinking this morning.

In general, the last few weeks seem to me to have moved things that were - a short while ago - seen as reform more and more into business as usual. The Tranche 2 inspection reports are now with fire and rescue services and we wait to see what the outcomes are so we can feed them into the National Fire Chiefs Council improvement framework to inform our programmes and projects for the future.

The English Fire Standards Board has met for a second time and this area of work is starting to develop with the first draft standard methodology being discussed at our Spring Conference. It certainly generated plenty of feedback; future workshops will help define this process as we look to develop standards to aid the professionalism of fire and rescue services.

 Finance is also a continuing theme as NFCC works with the LGA and Home Office colleagues toward a possible spending review.  I understand that news on what will be required from this review will be given to government departments this week, so we wait to see what more we need to do to attract more financial support to the fire and rescue service, including any pay award.

Continuing with the finance theme - but a bit closer to home - with an agreed balance budget and updated Operating Principles agreed, NFCC is well placed to support continuous improvement for fire and rescue, so we can serve our communities in the best possible way we can.

Investment in fire and rescue's idea of business-as-usual came together in stark reality in the spring as fire services across the country tackled moorland, heath and wildfire earlier in the year - more intensely than we have seen before.  This included the hundred-acre wood of Winnie the Pooh fame which attracted some international interest.  The serious note being that once again, through NFCC, we had to mobilise resources from many FRSs to support colleagues in this hot and arduous work.  Yet another example of needing more fire and rescue services to come together to tackle large incidents following reductions seen through years of austerity. 

Another issue that still takes up some much time it feels like business-as-usual is continued aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy and the subsequent Hackitt review.  In short, building safety.

NFCC welcomes the announcement of £200 million to help remediate the private sector buildings with ACM 3 cladding.  It is right that this burden will not fall on to leaseholders, but we would like to have seen this announcement come much earlier than it did to help make the buildings safer and remove the worry from those living in these blocks.  I recently gave a presentation alongside Jim Pauley, President of the National Fire Protection Association at the Worshipful Company of Firefighters annual lecture in the City of London.

There, we both emphasised the huge amount of work that is still required to fix our broken building safety system; build quality, competence, maintenance, correct product use, fire protection systems, product testing and safety regimes all still need to be improved. This is alongside a culture that doesn’t purely look at compliance, but considers building safety first before we have succeeded, a mammoth change agenda.

One of the areas we are promoting as hard as we can is the wider use of sprinklers, or water suppression systems, particularly in high rise residential buildings. Just this week, I accompanied Mark Hardingham as NFCC Protection and Business Safety Committee Chair and Terry McDermott as NFCC sprinkler lead, to meet with the Housing Minister, Kit Malthouse, to emphasise the NFCC position and ask for sprinklers to be prioritised in the building regulations review. 

We are also, as yet, unsure what the phase one report from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry will bring in terms of interim recommendations.  I think the length of the deliberation and my understanding of the possible outcome goes to emphasise what a difficult night the 14th June 2017 was for everyone involved.  We will soon be remembering the second anniversary and one of the significant outcomes of that night has been the mental health impact on so many survivors, bereaved, family, friends, neighbours and fire service colleagues.

This takes me back to Mental Health Awareness Week, as I say I have thought about this a lot recently and particularly this week.  I count myself fortunate that as an individual I do not believe I have had particular mental health issues.  Yes, there have been times of pressure and stress, who could do the job we do without those times. But, nothing I would consider beyond what I would expect.  But everyone is different and I have certainly seen and become aware of far too many examples of people dealing with mental health concerns.

I understand that mental health, mental illness and dementia have different definitions but are linked.  I saw my father-in-law die of extreme early onset dementia aged just 60. The two years' leading up to his death were particularly distressing for my wife.  But it is the number of suicides in the fire and rescue service that has made me think so much this week.  I recall four in particular, people I knew. The first was a leading firefighter from my watch at Soho Fire Station; the second a young firefighter from Manchester Square Station when I was the Assistant Divisional Officer (station manager) there.

I also often think about Mark Smitherman, ex-CFO South Yorkshire, usually when I least expect to remember him. I was his vice chair on the CFOA Operations Committee then taking over from him in 2011, Mark wasn’t long retired.  Finally, and no less shocking, the youth engagement manager from Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service when I was CFO there.  Nigel was someone who looked like he could take everything in his stride, a firefighter and boxer for many years. 

I knew each personally- and also remember our neighbour from two doors down whose child was in his early twenties when he took his own life, and the sister of my youngest son’s best friend, Charlotte, she loved drama and had a beautiful singing voice, she was 25 when she took her own life.  I am not sure there is a common reason for these tragic events; five out of six were male and suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. 

I wonder, especially with my four fire and rescue colleagues whether I, or anyone else, could have done more to help.  The only thing I am sure of is that we should look out for each other, I wish society could be a bit more tolerant and less judgemental, ask people if they are OK and mean it, it is good to talk and we cannot say often enough ,it is OK not to be OK.

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