‘Yes, there are challenges, but I still think it’s a very positive story’ – that’s the outgoing chief’s view of how he will leave Northumberland’s fire service.
When Chief Fire Officer, Alex Bennett, who retires next month after 32 years as a firefighter, looks back on his career, he describes it as ‘quite a strange feeling – a reflection of how fast the time has gone’.
But while the time might have flown, things have certainly changed in the world of firefighting since he started in Berkshire in the mid 1980s.
“It was a very different country, it was a very different world in lots of ways and I think the fire service reflected that,” he said.
“People’s homes weren’t as safe, the cars we drove weren’t as safe and the regulations that were in at that time – there were some significant regulations which had followed a number of very serious fires and other incidents in the ‘60s and ‘70s and we benefitted from that in the ‘80s – but we were still dealing with incidents where we had significant loss of life in the UK.”
There were many hazards that have since been banned or mitigated against, such as foam-filled furniture and the lack of electrical regulation.
“If you think about those things together, we did get a lot more fires, we were far busier in the UK fire service.”
Another thing that sticks in Alex’s mind is that they had to use phone boxes if there were issues with the radio or a fire engine broke down and the equipment available reflects another major change.
“Improvements in communications and technology have massively improved the safety of firefighters and that in turn improves the safety of the community because we are in better shape and we can deal with more incidents and survive situations we couldn’t have done then or endure them better because we are equipped better.
“We have come a long way. When I started, we wore rubber disposable gloves you would use for dealing with rubbish to tackle fires.
“Societal changes can’t be underestimated either,” he explains, referring to the importance of the prevention agenda which really started in the ‘90s with a push on smoke alarms in people’s homes.
According to Alex, these changes all add up to why fire deaths in the UK have dropped from 1,000 down to under 300 and are at about their lowest since records began.
“If you look at that reflected in Northumberland over the last 20 years, we have had the odd year where it’s gone up but the trend is down and I’m delighted that in the last two years we haven’t had any fire deaths. But I say that with the usual touching wood – it only takes one incident, it could be relatively minor, but if someone breathes in smoke or gets in the wrong place, it can end up with a fire death.”
Coming to Northumberland in 2002, Alex quickly had to get to grips with the realities of operating a fire service up here, which has always been a case of working with limited resources as well as how to deliver as service not just in the urban south-east, but in the rural north and west, and how the retained service is used.
When he stepped up to senior management, it was ‘a very fast learning curve’ as it involved more political considerations including the service’s role within the wider county council, which he says brings challenges but also ‘huge benefits’.
Alex also said that until you live in the county, you can’t understand the strength of the community. “The network in Northumberland is phenomenal and can’t be underestimated. For example, our retained firefighters are part of the community and they will understand the issues. We have harnessed that highly effectively over the years.”
But how does he see the service developing in the future, particularly in the face of further cuts?
“Pressure on funding is not going to disappear. What I have got confidence in despite the cuts we have had to make, which again are highly regrettable and they have been extremely difficult decisions, but at the heart of all those decisions is that we must ensure we still deliver a fit-for-purpose service.”
He pointed out all of the investment that is still going into the service in terms of the fleet and the likes of the new fire stations in Alnwick and Hexham on top of money spent on vehicles and equipment over the past decade.
“To be frank, there have been challenges for many, many years,” he added. “Northumberland has never had buckets of money swishing around. It’s always had the challenge of delivering services in a lean way.”
Many people have blamed the recent cuts on the county council’s spending priorities while others have blamed the Government’s public-sector cuts. Who does Alex blame?
“We just have to get on with it,” he said. “I think the cuts or impacts or pressures on fire services are generally reflected in all of the public sector.
“The fundamental question for us is will we still be able to deliver an effective service moving forward and I believe we can and I think the evidence proves that.”
However, he recognises that in the case of blue-light services, cuts and the service provided are a highly emotive issue. “Having spent my life doing this, I’m not naive to that and I have got as much investment in that as anyone.
“But we need to make it as clear as possible and we have a responsibility to the public to help them understand the realities of the situation, but when someone needs our assistance they are not interested in anything else. As I said, our job is to make sure we have still got an effective service to deliver that assistance when it’s called upon.”
In July, Paul Hedley will take over as the new Chief Fire Officer and Alex is happy that he is leaving the service in capable hands.
“Paul has grown up in Northumberland, he’s a Northumbrian, unlike me, and I think that’s great for him personally and very good for the county and the service,” he said.
“Paul has been a senior officer for over 10 years, he’s got a huge wealth of experience in running and managing the key issues of a fire service. He’s led on a number of key issues and was heavily involved in the creation of the community safety department in the early ‘00s.
“I’ve no concerns, I have absolute confidence in his ability to run the service and I welcome his appointment. I think he will be a very good leader, a very good figurehead and overall head of service.
“I don’t have all the answers, I have learned over the years, I still continue to learn and Paul will bring other approaches and other qualities and that’s to be welcomed. That’s the benefit of succession planning and of new leadership.”