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January 31, 2022

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Fireside Chat

FIA Fireside Chat: Mark Hardingham on promoting diversity in the fire industry

We pick out some of the best bits from the Fire Industry Association’s (FIA) recent fireside chat with Mark Hardingham, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC).  

Mark Hardingham, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council 

You can read the full fireside chat with the Mark Hardingham here.

Mark Hardingham, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, began his career working through various roles in the Essex County Fire Service. He then took up a Deputy Chief Fire Officer role in Suffolk, becoming Chief Fire Officer three years later. He was also chair of the NFCC’s Protection committee for almost four years before becoming Chair of the NFCC, working extensively in and around the building safety agenda through the events of Grenfell.

How have you been affected by COVID-19?

I’d say we’ve been lucky, health-wise nobody’s been seriously ill, business-wise no staff have lost their job which was the main aim when all this kicked off.

There’s a lot of work that we’ve done for social housing and student accommodation and a lot of that work increased during covid.  I think the people in these accommodations were taking the opportunity to make fire safety improvements like the PIPS (premises plates that we were just talking about) they’ve taken the opportunity to go and install those outside of these buildings while they were all empty and nobody was around.

Generally, from a business point of view we’ve maintained the status quo and then we kick on again, now everything seems to be on the up.

Where’s the most interesting place you’ve ever been with the Fire Industry?

​​​​​​​Texas.  When I was in Essex, I got to go to Texas A&M University to have a look at the American Incident Command System – NIMS.  I spent a week there with senior people in the fire services across the US learning how they dealt with some of their significant incidents, particularly around climate change and wildfires.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

​​​​​​​When I was first coming into leadership roles and attending more complex incidents as an Incident Commander, someone once said ‘when you turn up at an incident, if you’re in charge then wherever you are take 5 big paces backwards. You will have inevitably been drawn into the incident because that’s what you’re familiar with and 5 big paces backwards will mean you see a different incident and from a broader perspective’. At the time it was advice about incident command but really it stands up as advice about anything you’re dealing with.

What does your usual day look like?

I’m not sure there’s a usual day. Basing it on this week it’s nothing too exciting.  It tends to be an early start, there’s a mixture of Teams meetings with people in the NFCC, fire and rescue services, the Inspectorate, Home Office, employers or many others.  I spend quite a lot of time preparing for things, I hate going into anything unprepared.  I’ll be on the phone quite a lot, particularly to chiefs around the country to try and keep an eye on what’s going on across Services and in the NFCC.  Referring to the quote that I mentioned earlier then I always try and find a bit of thinking time in the week.

Outside of that, there’s usually a bit of travel, ignoring the pandemic and WFH for a minute, there’s normally a day a week in London, or trips out to a FRS or other event across the country.

When I’m sitting at home and there’s just a full week of Teams meetings then that is generally not a good week and Friday often feels a long way off.

What makes you excited about the future of this industry?

​​​​​​​The individual and the collective ambition of the people in it – right across the sector.  Whether I’m talking to people in fire services, in the NFCC, in government positions, in the wider industry – every conversation is about wanting to do things better and wanting to contribute.  Sometimes there’s a frustration about the pace of change, but there’s never a shortage of ambition for that change. I’d much rather that than a complacent approach where people have given up.

So, I like the healthy impatience that exists within the industry and that’s what makes me most excited for the opportunities for the fire sector in the future.

What does the fire industry need?

​​​​​​​Inclusion that comes from an increase in diversity, in all of its forms. The sector needs much greater collective intelligence with different perceptions, ideas, creativity, and innovation that comes from being a much more diverse and inclusive environment.  Of course, that is easy to say but much more difficult to achieve, especially to achieve it quickly but it’s an issue that we need to grasp internally and across wider society.

What do you like about the fire industry?

​​​​​​​I like the fact that it’s big, but at the same time small enough to build personal relationships with people right across the industry.  Having only been in this role for 9 months, I’m getting a really good feel for who’s who across the sector.  You’re never going to know everybody, but you know the key players.  There’s not so many of them that you can’t form relationships and pick up the phone and have a conversation.

The industry has a can-do attitude and is on the front foot. The nature of the fire service and the fire sector is it tends to attract problem solvers. That’s not always a good thing as sometimes we can leap into trying to solve a problem when we should step back slightly and think about it before we start to solve it.  At the heart of that though is a good intention.

What matters most to you?

​​​​​​​On a personal note – health, family and friends.

At work – doing a good job and people thinking I’m doing a good job, particularly in the role that I’m doing now. I represent 50+ Chiefs across the UK and that can feel daunting sometimes.

What motivates you?

​​​​​​​Reputation is a motivator, and secondly working hard in a way that gives me choices.

When you look at people who find themselves in difficult situations sometimes, quite often not through their own making, the consequence is they have limited or no choices.  I’ve said this to my own kids when they were coming through education, to not think of exams as anything other than a route to give you choices.

Where do you want to be in 5 years?

​​​​​​​I want to be doing something very different to what I do now – that’s no disrespect to what I do now and those I work with – I just like the idea of a new challenge and a different pace of work and life.

I would like to read more – anything really, crime novel, autobiography, leadership book. I’m determined to buy an e-bike and get some more fresh air without all the hard work of a long bike ride home. I’d also like to have a bit more balance and choice around work, family and friendships.

Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?

​​​​​​​It’s important because there’s a risk the Fire Service can become quite narrowly focused and the wider industry through the FIA have much to offer.  My career path meant I knew very little about the FIA until a long way into my career. Yet when I’ve engaged with the FIA and other professional bodies the knowledge and experience that you hold is immense. There is enormous strength in coming together through such forums.  We’re all largely trying to do the same thing albeit from a slightly different perspective.

I’ve always believed in the wisdom of crowds, the more voices in the room the better.

What do you want to say to the readers?

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The first thing I’d like to say is to go and get yourself a booster.  I had mine done recently, both of my boys had theirs and my wife too.  Even better, if you live in a part of the country where the fire service is giving boosters, and there’s plenty of those, then go and get one from a firefighter.

Secondly, there’s a challenge in terms of how we get out of our sometimes silo mentality and find ways to come together and focus on shared interests.

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