Assistant Editor, IFSEC Global

October 11, 2021

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FIA Fireside Chat: Neil Gibbons on his appreciation for fire professionals and how CROSS is key to improving fire safety for all

We pick out some of the best bits from the Fire Industry Association’s (FIA) recent fireside chat with Neil Gibbons, Fire Lead at Collaborative Reporting for Safer Structures UK (CROSS-UK).

You can read the full fireside chat with the Neil Gibbons, here.

Since finishing a successful career in the fire service, Neil has embarked on various roles including President of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Chief Executive of the Institution of Fire Engineers and some interesting consultancy and voluntary tasks including a review of product safety for the government that led to the creation of the Office for Product Safety and Standards. He is currently working to support the implementation of CROSS, which was originally confidential reporting on structural safety.

What is your favourite quote and why?

I have a quote that I’d want to use in a professional perspective for this discussion. Six months after the fire at Grenfell Tower I’d been invited to a meeting in London by Dame Judith Hackitt and her team.  There were around fifty or sixty of us in the room. We were divided into tables to look at the threads that Dame Judith had identified and try to shake out who should be around the tables as we move forward with addressing her issues.  On the top table alongside Dame Judith was the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd.

Amber Rudd addressed the meeting very early and said: “We have to do something after this awful tragedy, no one in this country should be stood in their flat, wondering whether to die in their flat or jump through the window.” That said so much to me that such a senior politician, with all the briefings, that they get and all the politics that’s involved, she really understood the gravity of the situation.

A few of us in the room were ex-firefighters and knew what that would feel like to be stood in that position and she articulated that so well and gave me confidence that we really were going to do something and make a difference. Something that happened, an aberration on her watch and we had got someone right at the top of the system, understanding the gravity.

What do you like about the fire industry?

There is a huge amount of public respect for people who work in the fire sector because it’s something that people are afraid of and they generally can’t deal with it themselves. They certainly respect the fire and rescue service but also, they tend not to interfere, knowingly, with fire systems. It’s a specialist and it’s important. That’s the people in the street perspective. Whether that transfers into national importance I am not so sure, because it’s not a hugely well-financed industry and it is something that people take for granted, but it’s great to be part of the family of fire, the family that’s so well valued globally by the general public. The culture surrounding the fire sector is one of care and is embedded on the historic leadership of the fire and rescue service and that has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. I hope that the knowledge is truly embedded. You’ve got a privilege to be held in esteem by the public, as the fire service are and you have to use that well. You’ve earned the trust, but you’ve also got to maintain the trust.

What makes you excited about the future of this industry?

I think we all recognise that change is required and that we need to put value back on professionalism and that bodies that deal with competency and ethics are very, very important. They’ve been neglected for a long time, we’ve had different priorities, we’ve gone through a period of pushing risk as far as we could go and Grenfell and the awful exposure of so many buildings being in dire straits, so many people living in terrible situations, we have to make a change. I can see that differences will be made that will lead to professionalism being valued. The FIA and CROSS both being big players in this is something I’d like to spend some time talking about, especially with the Government investing to expand CROSS.

I’ve been fortunate to engage with a project over the last two years. “Collaborative Reporting for Safer Structures” (CROSS), originally founded by the Institution of Structural Engineers and the Civil Engineers, out of a body called SCOSS (The Standing Committee on Structural Safety).  The structures profession have a tight community, I notice a great difference between fire professionals and structural safety professionals in that the way that they’ve kept close to their professional body, they will tend to gravitate towards a single focus. But fire is much more disparate, it’s got a fire service and it’s got a fire industry. CROSS provides a space for anyone who has knowledge or information, has witnessed an event, that they feel should be shared with others, to do so safely and with confidence that the information will be used in a positive way, to help prevent future failures. CROSS can be seen as an indicator of the culture, sharing learning, encouraging reporting, making things safer. I am pleased by the support already offered by the main fire institutions, everyone seems to recognise how positive this process can be, how it might help stop another Grenfell.

What does the fire industry need?

The fire industry is a broad church. When Dame Judith Hackitt talks about industries needing to sort themselves out, I don’t think she’s talking about the fire industry. I don’t think she’s only talking about the construction industry or the building management industry. Fire is a much broader sector that requires its own leadership and direction and that’s what it needs at this time.  50 years ago fire was dealt with by the fire service, the fire brigades. Very few people had any job that had got fire in the title, other than those in the fire service. A few people dealing with sprinklers, it might have been the birth of fire alarms around then but now we’ve diversified, we’ve made buildings more complicated, we’ve introduced systems that are more complicated, we’ve introduced building regulations that allow innovation, but we don’t have clear strategic direction pulling the strands together.

CROSS will be keeping our eye on the system to ensure that failures haven’t been creeping in, that actually, we are as a country keeping in front of the game and looking after our people so that they’re safe at home, safe at work, safe when they go out for entertainment or where-ever. We need leadership, somebody to step up and step back, to look over the system and ensure that all the parts are functioning properly. The parts are complicated, there’s finance, there’s politics, there are technical challenges but all of that needs knitting together by people that understand the whole system.

What motivates you?

My early career, I was a firefighter in the 1970s and 80s, there was seven years at the sharp end as a firefighter and I experienced things that appeared to me to be easily preventable. There were human tragedies, loss of life, injury, loss of homes, loss of businesses, loss of pets, loss of friends, awful tragedies, mostly fairly easily preventable.

Thankfully in my time from about age twenty one onwards, I could see the change of emphasis of the fire service from  response – “We’re only here to get the fire engines out of the door as quickly as possible blah blah blah” that was the mantra back in the 70s/early 80s, then prevention became recognised and I actually think fire has done a great job. In fact I think many sectors should learn from that refocusing, it’s easy to say prevention is better than cure, but certainly prevention is much more productive than the response.

Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?

One of the things I feel positively about the FIA is that when I’ve been invited to the annual pre-Christmas dinner, apart from the tremendous networking that goes on, it’s been mentioned that a number of companies have been excluded, been rejected because they didn’t meet the standards set by the FIA. That is really very important, there is no value in an organisation that you can just buy yourself into. You’ve got to live by the rules and one of the big things that Hackitt focused on is culture, it’s something that’s really important to me and I genuinely believe that between the FIA and the Institution of Fire Engineers you have got the influence over the companies and the individuals – that’s a huge strength in something that should be used to a very positive effect in these changing times.

The FIA is a body that is needed to bring together the disparate companies that operate in the fire sector and give people assurance. That if their safety is in the hands of a company, it’s a company that can be trusted because the FIA operates an effective quality control system and helps nurture companies and looks after people at the organisational level. Allied to the professional bodies looking after the individuals, that is the formula for ensuring that people are operating competently and ethically, which is likely to lead to them being safe.

What do you want to say to the readers?

The important thing is, where we are today, four years on from the awful Grenfell tragedy, a wake-up call that we should never have seen on our watch. We all should be looking at how we make the new system better and I would commend to everyone in the fire sector to get involved with CROSS, to have a look at our website, to subscribe to our newsletters and updates. Help us by providing reports of issues that you think others should learn lessons from. Help us improve the knowledge pool and keep that virtuous circle of learning, behaving as professionals, working together, keeping that standard of respect and trust that the public have given to us. Thank you.

The Future of Fire Safety: download the eBook

Is the fire protection industry adapting to the post-Grenfell reality fast enough? At FIREX International 2019, Europe's only dedicated fire safety event, some of the world's leading fire safety experts covered this theme. This eBook covers the key insights from those discussions on the developments shaping the profession, with topics including:

  • Grenfell Inquiry must yield “bedrock change” – and soon
  • After Grenfell: Jonathan O’Neill OBE on how austerity and policy “on the hoof” are hampering progress
  • Hackitt’s Golden Thread: Fire, facilities and building safety
  • Fire safety community has to “get on board” with technological changes

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