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25-03-21

Reflections from the last four years: NFCC Chair looks back at his time in the role

So here we are, my final blog as the first NFCC Chair; where have the last 4 years gone? Come to think of it, where have the last 39 and a bit years gone! I still distinctly remember going through the selection process for London Fire Brigade back in 1981. Carrying someone of similar weight on my shoulders for 100 metres, inhaling and expanding my chest for two inches, 20/20 vision, short dictation and maths tests and I was through, joining LFB on 23 November 1981. ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen and David Bowie was at number one, perhaps I should have known! But don’t worry as this is my final blog as NFCC Chair, I will confine my recollections and thoughts to my time with the National Fire Chiefs Council.

‘Under Pressure’ by Queen and David Bowie was at number one, perhaps I should have known!

The road to NFCC

Many will know that I was a CFOA board member and trustee for six years as Director of Operations, so I had a full hand in the board meetings that established the NFCC in consultation with CFOA members. As a board we had often talked about the size and complexity of the President’s job, especially when it was for only for one year. Although there was a two-year run up as vice president and vice president elect, we pondered about the benefits of having a full-time president.

Following Home Secretary Theresa May’s reforms of the Police and ACPO, the formation of the National Police Chiefs Council and her speech on fire reform in 2016, we thought the time was right.

You may recall the 2016 speech - followed up through a speech by the then Fire Minister, Brandon Lewis - was built on three columns of reform: Efficiency & Collaboration, Transparency & Accountability and Workforce reform. This agenda included professional standards, an inspectorate and the possibility of Police and Crime Commissioners taking on the governance of fire and rescue, which we all know now exist.

 The considerations behind creating a full-time chair position - and an NFCC that engaged all chiefs in decision making and policy positions - were the next steps in making our association more professional, more colligate, more consistent and more influential in terms of professional and technical advice.

The more we discussed the aims and objectives of establishing NFCC the more I thought the Chair’s role was the sort of simulating challenge that interested me; one where I thought I could continue my aim to help improve the Fire and Rescue Service to provide the best possible service to our diverse communities. So, in 2016 I stood for election, I was successful and started to work in shadow form in early 2017, with the official start of NFCC in April 2017. 

A more professional, more colligate, more consistent and more influential organisation in terms of professional and technical advice.

As we started to establish the NFCC I was the only employee of CFOA. I had a chief of staff - Steven Adams - for 50% of his time. The National Operational Guidance Programme (NOGP) still had a year to run and the CFOA staff who wanted to stay with the organisation were being TUPEd to the support hub situated in West Midlands Fire Service. We asked all Chiefs to sign a set of operating principles for our new way of working. All but one chief did so, but even their service paid the professional fees to ensure 100% sign up of UK Fire and Rescue Services to the NFCC. Something that still exists.

 My aims & ambitions for NFCC

Our aim in the first year was to establish the NFCC, work on its internal structures, complete the strategy and put into place a fit for purpose planning, budget and performance structure. We wanted to complete the NOGP and create a Central Programme Office (CPO) that would oversee the programmes, developed from our new strategy: Community Risk, People and Digital (later Digital & Data). In my first speeches I set out some personal and organisational objectives: "To maintain a professional FRS in the face of any governance changes, to be the go-to organisation for technical and professional fire related advice; a commitment to openness and transparency; to be bold and ambitious whilst being collective and supportive; to remain a UK-wide organisation - and to have a second Chair. I am pleased to say the objectives have been achieved, but it has not been easy.

The Grenfell Tower tragedy

Less than three months into the official launch of the NFCC the Grenfell Tower tragedy struck. As with many of the disasters and significant events in my career it started with a phone call - the Paddington rail crash, Harrow Court, the A1(M) and Buncefield all started with a single phone call. So did Grenfell when Dan Stephens rang me to tell me what was happening.

I managed to speak to Dany Cotton in the early hours of that morning to offer support. Dany had real concern for the residents, their families, the firefighters and the structure of the building.

Later that morning I was with the Fire Minister, Nick Hurd and Housing Minister, Alok Sharma. It was the first day in the job for them both. Days, nights and weeks were consumed by the aftermath and concern for other buildings across the UK; an aftermath and impact that continues to this day. My own response included attending 12 COBR meetings, plus all the pre and after meetings with politicians and officials to provide professional and technical fire service advice. 

FRSs received some outlandish requests, one such request came from West Yorkshire, again in a phone call. "Had I seen the order from the NHS for FRSs to inspect all NHS buildings in a day!" Little did we know then that we would uncover the depth of building safety failure across the UK. I was asked to join the Independent Expert Advisory Panel for six months in July 2017, which continues to this day.

The Phase One Inquiry recommendations continue to shape our services, whilst the Phase Two revelations continue to shock us. I have the greatest sympathy for those leaseholders caught in buildings with non-compliant external wall systems or a complete lack of compartmentation, it is not their fault and they should not have to pay to have these failings rectified. I led a push from NFCC to have some relevant research into the evacuation of high-rise residential buildings. I am glad to say this has progressed, although slower than I would wish. 

FRS response to largescale incidents

Grenfell was not the only event to affect our work both as both NFCC and as Fire & Rescue Services. London Bridge, Westminster, Finsbury Park and other attacks in London and elsewhere, plus, with sadly, the greatest loss of life, the MEN Arena bombing. All have shaped our services and our response. But there is something wrong when response to marauding terrorism is still officially stuck in the mechanism of the NJC. My belief is that response to terrorism is what we do; it is what we have always done and it is an operational matter that should be unrestrained by terms and conditions discussions.

Yes, the right training, equipment and procedures need to be in place, I believe they are already. Yes, anyone responding should be covered by all their employment rights, this has been confirmed many times. Yes, I believe firefighters and others should have decent pay. However, I also believe that whether we help save lives or not should not be the subject of pay negotiations.

 FRS response to COVID

I am extremely proud of the way Fire and Rescue Services have responded to this awful pandemic.

Then in many ways we had the biggest impact of all, the Covid-19 global pandemic, what a difficult and challenging year it has been. I said in October, I may go a year without seeing another chief face-to-face, apart from a few seconds with Rod Hammerton before laying a wreath at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, this will sadly come true.

I am extremely proud of the way FRSs and their people have responded to this awful pandemic. The work to serve their communities, the low absence rates and the commitment to save lives has been outstanding and in the finest traditions of the UK FRS.

As this blog is published, FRS staff will have administered more than 110,000 vaccinations. This is about 1 in every 250 of all vaccinations in the UK to date. A fantastic achievement. Of course, there was the tripartite agreement between NFCC, the employers and the FBU. The agreement started out with best intentions - using a framework that enabled Covid-related activities - but these became too prescriptive. It took too long to negotiate whether one of the parties agreed an activity was appropriate. The FRS response since the end of the NJC agreement has been at pace and nothing short of immense.

There have been many other achievements. The NFCC work with the LGA on our best ever Spending Review submission, our Leadership Framework, supporting the issue of the new Fire Standards, working well with the Inspectorate - including being a critical reader for national reports; completing NOGP; the Building Risk Review, and installing enough confidence in the Home Office for them to be comfortable with investing millions of pounds into NFCC, to help improve FRSs so they can put their communities first.

A 'thank you'

Before I finish there are a number of people I want to thank. Forgive me if I do not mention you all by name, all the Chiefs who have been part of the NFCC particularly the committee chairs. With a special mention to my vice chairs throughout, Huw Jakeway and Phil Loach for their support, counsel and odd (very odd at times) game of golf.

To the Central Programme Office, never that easy, especially when I kept putting non-portfolio work with you as I had nowhere else to go. To the support hub people, especially the old CFOA crowd; Helen, Hollie, Alison, Monica and Jane, plus the new members Hannah, Julie and Anna. To Steven Adams who has tried to juggle two full time jobs for years and his developing team. To my main man in IT at West Mids, Shaun Smith. Plus all those people in external organisations I have worked with so closely; LGA, FSMC, Home Office, HMICFRS, FSF, FIA, IFE and many more.

There are still many challenges to come, a new Spending Review, the pensions remediation, pay, a White Paper in England, diversity and inclusion, further rounds of inspections and the Inspectorate recommendations, Grenfell Inquiry phase two, the Manchester Inquiry, climate change, devolution and the building safety programme. NFCC is in a good place to meet those challenges and my final thanks goes to Mark Hardingham for taking on the baton, good luck.

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