Engineering excellence: Exclusive interview with IFE International President Hayley Burgess

Share this content


Hayley Burgess, International President of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE), shares insights on leadership, global representation and the challenges facing fire safety professionals

In a historic milestone, Hayley Burgess was appointed as the first female International President of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) in its over-100 year history in 2023.

Hayley has had a remarkable career, marked by diverse experiences and a steadfast dedication to the fire engineering sector.

After narrowly missing the grades needed for Veterinary Medicine, she opted for a Science Degree without a clear direction for her future career.

Upon graduating from Queen’s University Belfast, Hayley entered a Graduate Retail Management Programme, where she was first exposed to Health and Safety.

This introduction sparked her interest in fire engineering and safety, a field that perfectly married her passion for science with a dynamic and impactful career path.

Over the years, Hayley has leveraged her expertise to seize numerous opportunities within the fire sector in Northern Ireland, building a distinguished career that ultimately led to her groundbreaking appointment at the IFE.

In this interview, IFSJ Editor Iain Hoey caught up with Hayley to talk about her career, her role and initiatives at the IFE and her views on the fire engineering sector.

As the International President of the IFE, what are your primary responsibilities and goals in this role?

My primary role is to serve as an Ambassador for the institution and promote its work globally.

My responsibilities include:

  • Leadership and governance: Providing strategic leadership and direction, to ensure the IFE’s missions and goals are effectively pursued.
  • Global representation: Engaging with the global membership to advocate for fire safety and industry standards locally and internationally.
  • Membership Engagement: I was keen to foster a sense of community and further involvement from members, encouraging active participation.

The IFE has a long history of promoting fire safety standards. How are you building on this legacy during your tenure?

Building on the IFE’s legacy is woven through all the activities I undertake.

For example, advocating for ‘Best Practice’ through active promotion alongside encouraging the integration of new technologies to enhance fire safety and engineering standards.

I have recently participated in events in Indianapolis, Dubai, Puerto Rico and across the UK, contributing to workshops, seminars etc.

Collaboration is a crucial element in the ongoing improvement of standards and I’m delighted to carry on the work started by my pre-decessor, Dr Peter Wilkinson, by nurturing existing partnerships and establish new ones.

The fire engineering sector is constantly evolving. What do you see as the most significant challenges currently facing the industry, and how is the IFE addressing them?

The sector faces numerous challenges today, mainly driven by advancements in technology, evolving construction methods, taller buildings, climate change and substantial legislative changes.

These developments present significant issues for fire safety professionals to keep abreast of.

Obviously, one of the major challenges stems from the recommendations and legislative arising from the Grenfell Tower inquiry.

The extent of these changes has been extensive, requiring professionals to stay updated and adapt swiftly.

I feel that emerging technologies such as the use of Lithium-Ion batteries present a lot of unknowns and potential risks.

Additionally, climate change is leading to more frequent and intense wildfires, with prolonged dry seasons and higher temperatures making fire behaviour harder to predict.

Limited land is available to build on and this is why we’re seeing more buildings reach further into the sky, and the higher the building the more complex the fire strategy will be and the complications which come with high rise buildings.

The IFE is the industry leader in ensuring Fire Safety Professionals are equipped to successfully overcome these challenges.

Through comprehensive training and education, we keep members updated with the latest knowledge and skills.

The Membership benefits from excellent CPD opportunities through webinars, seminars and branch events.

The institution also has several Special Interest Groups (SIGs) that focus on specific challenges within the fire sector, and as new challenges arise, new SIGs are created to facilitate member collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Addressing the challenges today really does require a multifaceted approach.

Can you talk about on some of the key initiatives or programs that you and the IFE are currently working on to enhance fire safety knowledge and professional competency?

The IFE is renowned and respected for enhancing knowledge and competency within the Fire Industry.

Currently, one of our key initiatives involves raising the standards for Fire Risk Assessor Registration.

Applicants are now required to demonstrate a higher level of competency by registering with the Engineering Council.

This commitment to excellence not only enhances our credibility as fire safety professionals but underlines our dedication to continuous professional development.

The IFE offers a wide range of professional qualifications and certifications that are internationally recognized, ensuring that individuals at all stages of their careers have opportunities to enhance and consolidate their knowledge.

Most recently, the institution became the first Licensee of the Higher-Risk Building Registration under the Fire Engineering Discipline.

This initiative involves registered engineers and technicians who meet the Engineering Council’s new standard – UK-SPEC HRB Fire Engineering Discipline Annex.

We are actively extending our branch network, giving fire professionals further opportunity to learn and fulfil CPD through a range of branch activities; they provide access to high-quality resources that are available on the IFE website.

I recently spearheaded the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland IFE Branch, which had been inactive for more than a decade.

The initial event drew an excellent crowd of over 90 fire safety professionals.

We appreciate the importance of attracting young people into the sector.

That support and encouragement needed foster the next generation is vital.

We recently launched the Early Careers Networking Group and this will support budding talent in the field and offer young professionals and students a comprehensive insight into the wide range of vocations available within fire engineering.

I know that diversity and inclusivity are an important focus for you. What specific strategies or initiatives are you implementing to promote these values within the fire engineering sector?

The importance of ensuring a culture of diversity and inclusivity is at the heart of all our activities and remains a huge industry wide issue.

We have been developing several specific EDI initiatives to foster a more inclusive and representative organisation.

Our initiatives to date include forming a specific Equality, Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity Working Group of which I am a member.

As part of the terms of reference of this group, we have drafted a Policy outlining the aims and mission of the Institution in relation to EEDI, we have carried out a Benchmarking exercise to establish our position relevant to other PEIs.

We’re committed to enhancing awareness and understanding of EEDI through tailored training programs offered as part of our CPD provision.

These initiatives are designed not only to educate but also to empower our members to champion diversity and inclusivity within their respective roles.

It also goes without saying the election of the first ever female International President demonstrates the Institution’s commitment to promoting EEDI.

With your extensive experience in fire safety consultancy, how do you plan to support IFE members in navigating new regulations and legislative changes in fire safety?

My Practice is based in Northern Ireland and to date we have not adopted any new legislation that has been enacted in England and Wales, however I feel it is only a matter of time before this changes.

To provide support to IFE Members I require to be knowledgeable in all jurisdictions, therefore I plan to support members through supporting events and offering mentoring.

Having been a Mentor and a Mentee, the benefits of both cannot be underestimated.

I’m always open to meeting up with colleagues in the industry to provide support where I can.

To navigate the extensive changes in legislation, introduction of new Codes of Practice publication of Standards and Guidance etc, I will support event creation, webinars, publications and participating on working groups to assist in disseminating information.

Continuous professional development is crucial in any field. How does the IFE ensure its members stay updated with the latest skills and knowledge required in the fire safety industry?

CPD is not only recommended, but also obligatory for specific membership levels and professional registration maintenance.

The IFE provides a wide range of CPD opportunities both online and offline that are available via the membership portal.

Our quarterly journal features technical articles authored by respected practitioners across the globe, highlighting niche subject areas that contribute to CPD, and our library of Special Interest Groups also drive this.

IFE branches are also a huge factor in providing regional members with local updates a valuable insight.

Reflecting on your career, what have been the most rewarding experiences or achievements in your work within the fire sector?

I think it is fair to say that nothing can exceed the experience of being appointed as the first female International President of the IFE within its history.

This role has provided me with incredible opportunities, including visits to Indianapolis, Dubai, and Puerto Rico, where I met with representatives from Dubai Civil Defence, the Caribbean Association of Fire Chiefs, and Dr.

Lori Moore-Merrell of the American Fire Department.

These interactions have been profoundly rewarding, allowing me to learn from diverse cultures and experiences.

Looking ahead, I am excited to participate in conferences in Australia and New Zealand later this year.

On an academic level, gaining my Engineering Council Registration and inclusion on the IFE’s Fire Risk Assessor Register have been significant milestones.

These achievements have enabled me to demonstrate my competence within the sector, providing reassurance to my clients that their projects will be completed to a high standard.

Looking ahead, what is your vision for the future of the fire engineering sector, and how do you see the IFE playing a role in shaping that future?

Our focus will be on providing the highest level of education, developing further contextualised registers, and raising competency standards.

We’ll continue to offer high-quality CPD opportunities and ensure access to accurate, high-quality information and guidance on legislative changes.

Our forums will continue to grow and serve members in facilitating discussions, share knowledge, and exchange best practices on emerging issues.

This has already led to the creation of a Special Interest Group on renewable energies, actively led by our Technical Director, Paul Trew.

As we develop our new Organizational Strategy, member engagement will be at the forefront, ensuring that the IFE remains a leader in shaping the future of the fire engineering sector.

I am also passionate about encouraging women into the sector.

Women bring diverse perspectives and problem-solving approaches that enhance gender diversity, operational effectiveness, and foster a more inclusive and dynamic workforce.

Attracting more women to the fire engineering sector will undoubtedly strengthen the industry.

This article was originally published in the July 2024 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

Receive the latest breaking news straight to your inbox