A Modern Fire Service

From The Guardian:

The fire service played “no meaningful role” in the aftermath of the ManchesterArena bombing because they arrived two hours late, a review of the response to the attack has found.

Although two fire crews were stationed close enough to the Arena to hear the explosion, they were sent to a rendezvous point three miles away amid fears that there was a marauding terror attack and they would not be safe, the review concluded.

When they eventually arrived at the Arena, more than two hours after Salman Abedi detonated his suicide bomb on Monday 22 May 2017, the visibly frustrated fire officers were not immediately allowed on to the concourse to help because of communication errors between “risk-averse” officers in charge.

Is anyone surprised by this? Managers obsessing over risk assessments and preventing the rank and file doing the job they signed up for is normal for Britain’s emergency services these days, is it not?

Dawn Docx, the interim chief fire officer of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) said she apologised unreservedly for the failures in the previous leadership of the service at the time of last May’s outrage.

She’s interim because the person in charge at the time, one Peter O’Reilly who was on £155k per year, has now retired, keeping his pension with no action taken against him. Why not, I hear you ask?

Asked if any officers had been disciplined for their handling of events, Docx said: “We are very much a learning organisation. We are not seeking to go down a discipline route.”

Andy Burnham said no one individual should bear all the responsibility for failures and no one should be “scapegoated”.

How very modern. Time was, people atop organisations were paid vast sums of money precisely because they were accountable when something went wrong. Nowadays, nobody is responsible and nobody should be “scapegoated”. Yet the vast sums of money remain. Nice work for some, eh? Here’s a little about Docx, who appears to have been named by Microsoft:

Dawn joined GMFRS in 2017. She started her career in the fire and rescue service in her home county of Cumbria, where she specialised in finance, going on to become Head of Corporate Services. From there, she joined North Wales as an Assistant Chief Fire Officer in 2006 and was promoted to the role of ‘Dep’ in 2009.

Specialised in finance, eh? That’ll help when tackling blazes. So who else is on the leadership team of the Greater Manchester Fire Service:

Dave Keelan
Director of Emergency Response

Since 2008 Dave has worked as a Borough Manager in Manchester, as Head of Prevention and Head of Operational Training for the Service, and is currently leading a team investigating the tragic death of Firefighter Stephen Hunt at an operational incident on Oldham Street in Manchester in July 2013.

Okay, he at least sounds as though he knows one end of a hose from another.

Shelley Wright 
Director of Corporate Communications

Shelley holds the only board-level communications role in any Fire and Rescue Service in the UK. She took up her post in October 2010 and has delivered a vision to ensure that local people in Greater Manchester have more access to information about the work of GMFRS and, most importantly, to get safety messages into people’s homes and businesses, improving and protecting lives through awareness.

If no other fire service in the UK needs a board-level communications person, what makes Manchester so different? Who is she related to? Here’s the pic which accompanies her bio:

They’re not even trying, are they?

Gwynne Williams
Deputy Monitoring Officer

Gwynne undertook her training and qualified as a Solicitor in a private practice in 1989. In October 1990 she joined Wigan Council as an in-house solicitor and shortly after began working with Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service specialising in the area of Fire Safety.

I’ve gone through the leadership of a number of organisations over the past year, and I notice there seems to be no requirement to have any knowledge or experience of the organisation’s core activities to earn a position.

Andrea Heffernan
Director of Corporate Support

Andrea is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, and prior to joining GMFRS worked for KPMG as an Internal Auditor and for a Home Care Charity in Wakefield before joining GMFRS in 1997 as Business Accountant.  She has  worked in a number of roles within the Finance team until she was appointed as Head of Finance and Technical Services in June 2008. Andrea took up the role of Director of Corporate Support in December 2015.

I’m slightly surprised that a city’s fire brigade needs a director of corporate support. I ought to be surprised they’ve handed overseeing the provision of technical services to firemen to an accountant, but I’m not.

To their credit, Greater Manchester Fire service hasn’t filled its webpages with endless screeds on the importance of diversity, but a search brings up plenty of documents pandering to the idea. This “inclusivity strategy” document (.pdf) contains a particularly illuminating line (page 9):

Since 2003 we have fundamentally changed what we do and we are no longer a purely responsive service waiting for emergencies to occur.

This was written in 2012, and we can probably assume things have developed such that the word “purely” can be deleted from the above. It would explain why, when an emergency did occur, you didn’t know what to do. Still, lessons learned, eh? I’m sure Peter O’Reilly mulls them over every day, when he’s not figuring out how to spend his amassed earnings and generous pension.

(Thanks to reader Morteen for the heads-up on this.)

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39 thoughts on “A Modern Fire Service

  1. I don’t care if it is unsafe. I want the emergency services ‘walking to the sound of the guns’. That is their job. Is it worse that some firefighters get caught in secondary explosions or that 100% of initial victims get abandoned? The HSE mindset has got out of control.

    The French have it right and we don’t! How fucking shameful is that?

  2. She “has delivered a vision”. I fucking hate this phrase.

    What it means is someone had a fairly mundane idea about something and either they or someone else arranged for it to happen. THAT’S IT. So what was here vision? Delivering more leaflets and putting stuff on social media and the website. THAT’S IT.

    People don’t have fucking “visions”, at least not about bureaucracy and organisational structure, and if they do they should be shown the door.

    Also, how diverse that board is. One notices a direct inverse relationship between how diverse an organisation is and how effective it is at doing whatever it is there to do.

  3. “apologised unreservedly”

    “We are very much a learning organisation. We are not seeking to go down a discipline route.”

    “no one individual should bear all the responsibility for failures and no one should be “scapegoated”.”

    So, so New Labour. Common Purpose just seeps out of all of this. I bet if some ranker fireman called someone a ‘bird’ or said ‘no thanks love’ they’d be “down the discipline route” a lot, lot quicker than they responded to this attack.

  4. …if some ranker fireman called someone a ‘bird’ or said ‘no thanks love’ they’d be “down the discipline route” a lot, lot quicker than they responded to this attack.
    As someone who until recently was employed in this area, I can confirm that this is true.

  5. “We are very much a learning organisation”

    As opposed to people who, in the hardest of times, square up to danger in order to fight fires so lives may be saved.

    Also, “She started her career in the fire and rescue service in her home county of Cumbria, where she specialised in finance”

    I presume as in throwing public money on fires.

    If people really knew the public-service bollocks that goes on (and where their hard-earned money goes in paying for these useless ‘managers’) there would be a revolution. Oddly, the people who used to shout most loudly for a revolution — when young and spotty — are now safely ensconced in warm offices with no stress, and very eager to keep it that way.

  6. I know what I am
    I’m a man I’m a man
    And so is … Shelley

    So that’s that box ticked, then.

  7. We’re literally paying them to run away. PAYING THEM TO RUN AWAY!

    Surely we can get some people who will run away for less money? I’ll do it for half the salary.

  8. She “has delivered a vision”.

    By the description of her resume, she couldn’t deliver a fucking television.

    We’re literally paying them to run away

    Henceforth shall the emergency services be collectively known as Sir Robin.

    TMB, yeah. And most of them would have difficulty putting the cat out, let alone fires.

  9. Chris Snowden has pointed out a similar phenomenon at Public Health England. There’s a small core of work which the general public considers to be “public health”, which harks back to John Snow and the 1854 cholera outbreak in Soho. Then there’s the rest of the budget for Public Health England (£4.5bn), which consists of nagging people to drink less and stop vaping.

    As with the fire service, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a significant male/female divide between the two sides of PHE.

    Snowden’s latest piece on PHE: https://velvetgloveironfist.blogspot.co.uk/2018/03/the-scandal-of-public-health-money.html

  10. There’s an angle on this being missed – and essentially I would think it’s wrong to pin the blame directly on the the fire service. Assuming they followed the established structures for a combined response by all of the emergency and security services this incident would have been managed by a “Gold” Commander at the top tier, normally this is a senior copper supported by senior personnel from all other relevant organisations and they should train together regularly.

    The rendezvous points etc are a perfectly reasonable strategy – without reading the report I can’t say for sure but it’s a fair assumption that there would have been a healthy debate in gold command about the decision to deploy them or not. Ultimately the question that should be aske here is “would their earlier arrival have saved any more lives?” I suspect not many, the arena wasn’t on fire and I don’t recall any indications of structural failure etc. If this is true then it is unpalatable but probably correct that they were held back in this instance as no one knew what was coming next. It’s a myth that resources should just be piled in and that it’s the best thing to do – it’s not unheard of to plant further devices to smash the rescuers is it?

    Horrible decisions to have to make but I would doubt very much that this is an example of incompetence.

    I would doubt that the diversity of the board of GMFS had much of an impact on this situation however I’m sure it’s not helping in other areas of their operation.

  11. The excellent comic series Monkey Dust anticipated the takeover of the fire brigade back in 2003:

    Consultant: “Let me ask you a question. Who uses the fire brigade?”
    Fireman: “Well, it’s, um…”
    C: “Let me tell you, because we’ve gone into this. He’s a family man. He’s a smoker. Wife, children. Property owner. Maybe lower-income, white-collar occupation.”
    F: “And, generally, their ‘ouse is on fire.”
    C: “Bingo. The fire brigade is a reactive organisation. Our brief from government is to turn it into a proactive organisation. Why restrict yourself to putting out fires?”
    Fireman: “Well, we also cut people out of wreckage.”
    C: “Tell me, what is the fire brigade’s biggest asset?”
    F: “Uh, big tanks of water?”
    C: “Its brand. People trust the fire brigade brand. They’ll buy anything from you. CDs, coffee, cigarettes, David Beckham replica tops, pensions.”

    Full episode (fire brigade segment is just the first 2-3 minutes): https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x58ee1s

  12. Horrible decisions to have to make but I would doubt very much that this is an example of incompetence.

    Then what’s Dawn Docx apologising for?

    “It is clear that our response fell far short of what the people of Greater Manchester can expect,” she told a press conference following the publication of a report by Lord Bob Kerslake into the emergency response to the attack.

    Couldn’t she have explained all this to Kerslake?

  13. “Since 2003 we have fundamentally changed what we do and we are no longer a purely responsive service waiting for emergencies to occur.”

    So does that mean they proactively create emergencies? and is this a mafia kind of “Nice building you have here, be a shame if it burned down” proactivity?

  14. The blame, I don’t think falls on the fire service, the combined response at Gold Command level failed and this is usually the responsibility of the police to set up. They control the cordons and staging points yet the fire service are the whipping boys here – they were apparently not correctly informed of the level of incident. I’m trying to read more but it stinks. She is apologising as it’s the public perception that this is a failure of their organisation, it would be a PR disaster to publicly dispute the findings of the inquiry.

  15. She is apologising as it’s the public perception that this is a failure of their organisation, it would be a PR disaster to publicly dispute the findings of the inquiry.

    If Shelley Wright, featured above, is leading the PR effort then I’m sure it would be. You should send in your CV.

  16. “would their earlier arrival have saved any more lives?” I suspect not many, the arena wasn’t on fire and I don’t recall any indications of structural failure etc. ”

    There were probably a lot of people with survivable injuries that became unsurvivable following two hours with no attention. I assume all firemen have at least basic (and probably advanced) first aid training, so yes, rushing in would have saved lives.

    And agree, it needs to be weighed up against the risk to the firefighters, but the impression given is that two hours were spent sitting down doing a risk assessment that should have been done as an exercise in preparedness some years previously.

  17. There’s a parallel to this in my line of consulting, that a lot of clients want documentation of any query anyone raises, documentation of the response, by whom, who discussed it, documentation that the initial query-raiser saw the response, documentation that a manager signed off on the solution, and so on.

    It’s make-work that saps time, energy, and budget from actually getting the job done to an acceptable standard. So while it probably results in a few decisions being better than they would have been, it results in other decisions not being taken at all, or taken badly, and in expensive, competent, qualified people spending their time writing pointless file memos rather than doing the job they actually like doing well.

    In this incident, of course you need co-ordination but you also need to leave a lot of the risk assessment to the people responding. Should I lift that beam off that person’s leg or will it cause more damage to do so? You don’t have time to write up a risk assessment for every time you choose to move something that might weigh more than the regulation 32 kg. Trusting people to make decisions without referring everything that isn’t per SOP up the chain of command would probably result in more stuff being done better, and certainly in most cases outweigh the downside due to individual error.

  18. There might be no consequences now, but just wait about thirty years. Families of the victims will get the whole thing re-hashed again and some bugger (not those responsible) will be scape goated at a time when it’s no longer possible to have a fair trial

  19. … there seems to be no requirement to have any knowledge or experience of the organisation’s core activities to earn a position.

    Sadly, this has been the case for a long time now. I think it was the late 1980s that saw the rise of Business Schools and the promotion of the MBA (every bit as fatuous as Media or Gender Studies) which depends on the belief that ‘management’ is a discrete skill that, once acquired, enables and entitles those thus qualified to run anything.

  20. If we regain our sanity and try to become a serious nation again, I hope that making an example of a few of the most egregious miscreants por encourager les autres will suffice. Reading articles like this, though, I fear that a much more extensive purge might be required.

  21. the belief that ‘management’ is a discrete skill that, once acquired, enables and entitles those thus qualified to run anything.

    I think you’re right, but given we’ve now had around 30 years of demonstrating this approach usually ends in disaster, I’m somewhat surprised it hasn’t been abandoned. If anything, it’s growing.

  22. Reading articles like this, though, I fear that a much more extensive purge might be required.

    It’s why we need Ecks in charge for a while.

  23. As an MBA grad I can see what you mean about useless management but fortunately that’s not what a good MBA teaches. A good MBA teaches how to get stuff done. This diversity noise and promotion of political players above competent people, even competent managers, ihas gone far enough as to be seriously damaging. We have this at work. After a year of people working on topic A our senior director responsible writes he doesn’t understand how the different work on A fits together. A competent manager would say “stop until we know what we’re doing and why”. I suggested as much 6 months ago and got out firmly on the naughty step.

    A lot of the box ticking comes from others insisting that boxes need ticking for corporate governance purposes. I work in a very regulated sector with tons of risk management and corporate governance. Some is helpful and sensible (identify the risks, decide which to take, which to mitigate etc etc). Lots of guff. Everything gets sent to the board as they need to see everything but this means they see nothing as the board packs are a foot thick and take a day to read properly.

    As someone says the fire brigade could have saved lives here, or reduced the impact or life changing injuries. They are first aid trained to a higher standard than the security guards and train workers that were first on the scene. Given the numbered of injured I doubt there were enough paramedics so triage would have been brutal. I need to read the report and read between the lines.

  24. Old, but custom never stales its infinite variety: https://mobile.twitter.com/iowahawkblog/status/664089892599631872?lang=en
    Whiteboard Technician, your points are far from unreasonable, and well expressed, but I think that the overarching point that our host is convincingly making here and elsewhere is that the sort of board GMFS has given itself were guaranteed to produce exactly this sort of outcome. And nor is it an explanation to attribute the handling of the incident to police procedures unless you are satisfied that the same rot does not infect the police:http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-37584951
    Or https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=IT%2bTE%2bJU&id=E6B8B285B4564422CA0395B91E9F17950670684F&thid=OIP.IT-TE-JUiubL768cd9LqEQHaKe&q=police+scotland+posters&simid=608012902867863306&selectedIndex=0

  25. You should send in your CV.

    One half suspects he/she already has.

    …given we’ve now had around 30 years of demonstrating this approach usually ends in disaster, I’m somewhat surprised it hasn’t been abandoned.

    Well, it all depends on your point of view. Is it a disaster to be making six figures sitting in a comfortable chair filling out forms?

  26. Well, it all depends on your point of view. Is it a disaster to be making six figures sitting in a comfortable chair filling out forms?

    And that’s the exact problem right there, isn’t it? A corporate ruling class who snaffle the senior, well-paid jobs and agree never to hold one another accountable. They might as well be politicians.

  27. Talking of organisations responsible for fire safety, this is the same fate that befell the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation of Grenfell Tower fame. A bunch of useless lefties gained control, then took decisions that they weren’t qualified to take (nor were they even able to recognise the limits of their own knowledge, c.f. Dunning-Kruger).

  28. And nor is it an explanation to attribute the handling of the incident to police procedures unless you are satisfied that the same rot does not infect the police

    Nah, couldn’t happen. Not in the police.

  29. I thought that the problem went back to when the HSE sued the Met over policemen who had accidents pursuing villains. See here http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/1945127.stm
    As the Commissioner would have been liable, not surprisingly all public bodies now have risk assessments before they let frontline staff do potentially dangerous stuff.

    That’s why you have senior officers stopping frontline staff just, say, diving in to save drowning kids or adults, because there won’t have been time for risk assessments and if anything goes wrong the senior officers will be personally liable

  30. I thought that the problem went back to when the HSE sued the Met over policemen who had accidents pursuing villains.

    The biggest problem with HSE in the UK is that the rules are implemented by absolute fuckwits. The rules themselves aren’t that bad, but they rely on someone with common sense and an interest in getting the job done implementing them. And those two qualities get weeded out in pretty much every branch of the British public sector at the interview stage, as well as from much of corporate life.

  31. “would their earlier arrival have saved any more lives?” I suspect not many, the arena wasn’t on fire and I don’t recall any indications of structural failure etc. ”

    The paramedics who were pleading with firefighters thought they would have made a difference. I’m inclined, in the absence of other evidence, to trust their judgement.

  32. The Tube bombings of 7/7 had emergency workers martiallef on the platforms awaiting permission to enter the tunnel, while passengers attended to each other assisted by a rogue station master who grabbed emergency equipment against orders. It seems all the wrong lessons were learned.

  33. Every time I stopped to make a very trenchant and perspicacious comment, I found someone had already beaten me to it. I do enjoy the commentariat here, even if the pickled eggs aren’t up to the usual standards.

    One thing I didn’t see, though. During a discussion a while back about excessive public service pensions bankrupting cities in California, the point was raised that police and fire services had been taking advantage of the conservative tendency to lionize them as “first responders”, when for firefighters especially a combination of fire codes, building standards and safety equipment means that they do very little firefighting any more and are generally not in much danger when they do. And so they’re sucking up very large pensions, overtime, etc. all out of proportion to their actual value or putative heroism.

    I’m wondering if the same thing applies in the UK. While it would certainly be uncouth to cast aspersions on the likes of, say, Steve Buscemi, no organization is immune to self-interested goldbrickers.

  34. I notice that 80% (four out of five) board members are women that have no service experience in the fire service or have any knowledge of what the pointy end of the spear actually do. Diversity and girl power boxes ticked.

    It used to be that Chief Police Officers were either ex-service (Army, Air Force or Navy) that had managerial experience where they were trained to routinely made decisions that were life or death scenarios (and their decision as likely as not would involve them in the outcome) or they were Police officers that had served their time rising through the ranks and had a practical approach to the problems likely to be encountered. They earned high salaries because they were paid for the responsibility that they held and exercised.

    Nowadays a BA from a university in some kind of left wing approved course such as criminal science, offender rehabilitation or the usual favourite, history, is the fast track way to the top. And having the correct gender qualifications, of course. Lots of pay, bugger all responsibility for anything.

    As one tag line from another forum I read says “The art of management is not to count every bean but to make every being count”. The Manchester Fire Service seems to be headed by bean counters.

    But, every one in chorus here, “Lessons have been learned …”.

  35. Phil B

    Goes to the tune of “All you need is love” doesn’t it? Learned have lessons been, lessons have been been learned.

  36. The biggest problem with risk assessments these days is the people doing them. They have forgotten there purpose. It is to assess and where possible reduce tge risk, of doing something, to ALARP while still actually doing the something. This was the key point drummed into to us at a training course for creating safety cases for the MoD, along with the fact that risk assessments are context driven and can and will need to take as little as a few seconds.

    In the case of the bombing aftermath, the biggest hazard was secondary explosive devices. The risk to first responders could be mitigated by simply telling the guys on the ground, we don’t know if there are more bombs, so your call if you want to go in.

    Risk assessments are not about proving absolute safety, HSE won a case against the EU on this general point.

  37. Steve in Calgary,

    Exactly. Too many fuckwits in positions of authority. Nobody ever does a risk assessment about that.

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