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January 14, 2022

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Fireside Chat

FIA Fireside Chat: Peter Stephenson on welcoming a new generation of talent to the industry

We pick out some of the best bits from the Fire Industry Association’s (FIA) recent fireside chat with Peter Stephenson, Business Development Manager at Warrington Fire. 

Peter Stephenson, Business Development Manager, Warrington Fire

You can read the full fireside chat with the Peter Stephenson here.

Peter Stephenson, Business Development Manager at Warrington Fire, joined the industry at the age of 20 as an operational firefighter for the Royal Berkshire fire and rescue services. After sustaining injuries in a high-rise fire, Stephenson had to leave the fire and rescue services and began a career as a fire safety officer. He then moved out of the fire safety service, working for Network Rail, before moving into a consultancy role, and then taking up his current position at Warrington Fire.

How have you been affected by COVID-19?

Well, it certainly has been a challenge, adapting to home working has probably been the biggest task, from fronting meetings in person then moving to home working has been quite a challenge. But now looking forward to getting back to the face-to-face meetings and also the International-travel.

The home working was really the big change. Relating to keeping elements of the last 18-months, from personal observation, I actually think I’m more efficient working from home and I’m very flexible with my own working hours, but I can see myself on a daily routine actually starting the day working from home and then moving out to face-to-face meetings or going into the office/lab later in the day.  But not religiously being a 9-5 in the office in the future.  I think it works better to have that flexibility.  But having said that, you do need that human interaction.

When I went up to London the other day, just travelling on a train, seeing how London had developed in the past couple of years, I really enjoyed it. The one thing I probably would do is if you are traveling on the trains, is to go outside of rush hour.  I did that for seven and a half years and I know exactly what it’s like.  I did lead a bit of a Reginald Perrin type of life, same seat, same train, seeing the same people, it was very funny.

That period on the train was very productive for doing particular types of work like, review and reports doing research, so it’s just making the best time. I worked on my journey into London and then I listened to the Podcasts and general light reading coming out of London, fitting in the odd power nap here and there.

If you weren’t in the fire industry – what would you be doing and why?

I think, naturally I would have had a career at some point in my life with the military service. I was an active member in the Territorial Parachute Regiment and was actually looking to enter a secondment program and I received an offer of employment with the fire service and the met police and at the time, I chose the fire service.

Whilst I was in the TA, I also had full-time employment with John Lewis partnership and I was on one of their management training schemes. I would have had plenty of opportunities to specialise in the retail sector and training and such-like but at that time, as a twenty-year-old, I took a more adventurous career path, which the fire service offered. It was a good time for me.

I do feel for youngsters today where a career in banking used to be a job for life, but I don’t think there is any job now that can give that guarantee.

Where’s the most interesting place you’ve ever been with the fire industry?

Well, I have been so fortunate to have travelled extensively across the Middle East, Singapore, South Korea, and Australia, but from a project perspective, Saudi Arabia stands out for two projects. The Red Sea project which is the tourism destination has 28,000 square kilometers which I’m working on and also The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture known as Ithra. That’s at the heart of Saudi Aramco where the oil was first found. They’ve invested and built an absolutely fantastic venue there to educate people and obviously the money from the oil industry in Saudi Arabia is fed into the Red Sea project. There’s a nice bit of connectivity there.

Closer to home, I’ve worked on projects at the Houses of Parliament for 7-8 years and that gave great insight into the history and what a beautiful building is all about and also the challenges from a fire safety perspective. It’s a massive project and it’ll still be on going forever.

There’s a story a guy told me, he said there was a bar that had a problem with the hot water, and to get it sorted out, they reckoned it would have been cheaper to fly to New York on Concorde, book into a hotel, have a shower then fly back than it was to go through all the rigmarole of the heritage blah blah blah to make this adjustment they had to do to the central heating.

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

Keep yourself busy, keep learning, never give up. That’s my spin on things.

When I first joined there was a little old guy at the fire station and he always carried a rag around with him. I asked him why he carried a rag around and he said “You watch”, so a door to the appliance bay opened, Ian’s got his rag in his pocket and he just turns around and starts polishing the fire engine, in came the Watch Commander and out of five people that were stood there, one was polishing the machine, four people weren’t doing anything in his eyes, so the Watch Commander called the four and said, “Come on, you, you and you”. He took the very simple strategy of keeping himself busy in his little world and he had quite an easy time, most of the time.

There are lots of quotes about idle hands is the devil’s work and what-have-you. But I think continuing to better yourself, is the over-arching concept, so that and never giving up. There’s always a route around a hurdle.

How does your work and family life come together?

You’ve got to get the time management right and appreciate the family around you, as I alluded to in the last question, I’m not shy to take an hour out during the day. If my wife needs to go shopping or some support for whatever. I’ll always take that time out and make it up in the evening, or even at the weekends.  I don’t stick to a rigid 9-5 routine.

There’s still a joke within the family about many years ago, we took a family trip to Florida and at that time the kids were quite young. I had a particularly tricky project working on the London Underground at King’s Cross. I was an early riser and I’d start my day in the morning with a coffee and be sorting out my emails in the jacuzzi and sorting out project issues for about an hour before the family was up. Then the rest of the day I had to myself, so it de-stressed my day by sorting out work issues, there and then at the front end while the family were still asleep. That allowed me to focus on family activities later in the day.  You should have seen the stick I got though. They’d ask me “What are you doing?” I would reply “I’m catching up on my emails”. Then I’d get “But you’re on holiday”. But as you know, coming back to several hundred emails will always be on the back of your mind. So, as long as you can, you need to keep ticking things over, identify what needs to be done and do it at a time that doesn’t impact, it works well.

What makes you excited about the future of this industry?

It’s seeing the next generation of talent developing within an industry, in my own mind you’re playing a small role as a mentor and you can make all the difference to someone’s career.  Seeing the positivity with young female engineers developing in the sector is great to see and my daughter Laura, is just starting her 4th year at UCLAN BEng and doing a (Hons) in a fire engineering degree, she’s already decided that she wants to do a Masters, so to me, that’s absolutely fantastic.  It’s been her choice.  I’ve not pushed her. So that’s good.

But also, the new technology and innovation is very exciting and it’s like, what’s next?  Who knows?  But it is a great sector to work in.

What does the fire industry need?

There’s a lot happening at the moment within the industry following notable fires worldwide, the industry needs to work collaboratively with all stakeholders within the built environment and work on getting back to basics with values, such as trust, integrity, and honesty.  it’s simplistically working in partnership rather than silos.

What do you like about the fire industry?

Fire safety cuts across all industries and communities and simply everything we do in the sector can make a difference to safety and protecting the community/environment.

One of the little frustrations that I have is in big multidisciplinary teams, engineering fire teams generally are of the poor cousin’s structural team.  But whatever you’re talking about, fire has its place and I think every project should have a fire engineer on, irrespective.  Even if it’s just a watch and wait just to advise as and when, is really important.

What matters most to you?

For me personally, it’s doing the best I can on every task and not walking and turning my back on every problem.  I do like to think there is a solution to every problem but sometimes you do see people shy away from a difficult job and pick the easy ones.

I used to work with a guy and I used to say he had a reversing in-tray.  I used to cover his fire safety area and his tray had all the difficult jobs at the bottom and when I covered his patch, he used to turn it around, so I had all the difficult jobs at the top.  I sussed him out on this one particular job and I then made sure those difficult jobs went on top of the pile for when he came back.  But it was a great way to learn, if you get a problem, you come up with a solution.  The satisfaction you get from the feedback from the clients and personally, is 100%.

Where do you want to be in 5 years?

I want to start looking at winding down for retirement and take up opportunities that come along and give back to the industry and beyond, maybe charity work and where I can make a difference.  Continue to work with the IFE and that will be a bit more mentoring and such like, but I’ve had good innings and I think saying ‘100 not out’ in batting terms is a good way to go out.

Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?

For me personally, it’s a great association and I think you’ve got good leadership with Ian, but a lot of friends and former colleagues are members and if I ever have a problem, I’ll turn to those former colleagues’ friends.  The importance of the FIA in the industry is summed up in its core objectives, promoting, improving, and aiming to protect fire protection methods, devices, services, and apparatus.  The FIA is a great way of sharing experiences and problem-solving.  I mentioned earlier of collaboration and not working in silos and it’s important to have those to look up to and aspire to.

What do you want to say to the readers?

All the readers will have an interest in the fire industry and I would say to them that they can make a difference irrespective of their speciality and their current level of experience in the industry.  Never stop learning and keep striving for perfection.

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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