The frustration and failures of missed opportunities

Share this content


Firefighters are dedicated to preserving the safety and well-being of individuals and communities by responding to a wide range of incidents and helping in various emergency situations, writes IFSJ Managing Editor Duncan J. White

The globally reported loss of the Titan submersible was a tragic event. If initial reports are correct, it appears that those with responsibility decided they knew best despite the concerns of experts. No doubt over time the marine accident investigation will report on the facts of the case, but how often do we as a fire industry have to deal with the failure of not listening to experts?

When it goes wrong we know that our firefighters will respond to the call. The primary focus for a firefighter in a response situation remains that of saving and protecting life, property, and the environment from the adverse effects of fires and other emergencies.

My experience has always confirmed that a firefighter is a firefighter wherever they happen to live in the world.

Uniformity in Firefighting

Risk profiles aside, the focus of a firefighter in London is arguably the same as a firefighter in Liberia? Whilst local variations will exist for a range of circumstances, the way in which firefighters manage an incident will be largely the same.

With this being the case why do we still see fire services reinventing the wheel when it comes to implementing policies, procedures, and training programmes, not to mention the procurement of equipment and services?

With three decades of knowledge and experience in the UK fire and rescue sector I am still saddened to continually witness the lack of communication and shared good practice between the services of the United Kingdom, let alone across the wider world.

There are of course some great examples of joined up working but overall, I fear there remain too many missed opportunities and expertise is ignored or unheard.

Lessons from the Past

A topical example is the way in which our fire services in the UK respond to wildfires. In 2022 we witnessed higher numbers, and more severe wildfires than ever before, affecting many parts of the UK.

Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service, under the leadership of Chief Fire Officer Paul Hedley, are regarded as the country’s leader in wildfire preparedness with Paul taking the lead for the National Fire Chiefs Council on wildfire. Despite this, it appears the best practice developed and ably demonstrated by Northumberland and some other fire and rescue services, a national policy for fighting wildfires is still not in place. Why?

In addition to varying procedures for incidents that arguably require more frequent cross border liaison than others, how can a risk assessment support firefighters wearing personal protective clothing (PPE) designed for internal compartment firefighting to tackle wildfires?

The global standards for compartment firefighting gear is high and we’ve seen huge advances in the design, materials, and protection it affords the wearer when needed, but a wildfire demands a different approach. Failure to address this risks created by the very clothing that works so well inside leaves firefighters vulnerable to the serious  physiological effects of heat stress and impacts on their ability to work over the distances and duration needed. The result is that firefighters will ‘dress down’ to t shirts in response to the risk of overheating and in doing so increase their exposure to both the fire and the sun.

In the early 2000’s I was fortunate to have experienced the work of  a US wildland firefighting team. Over two decades ago these firefighters were provided with a lightweight wildland PPE ensemble which had passed all the necessary certifications and demonstrated to be fit for purpose. So why, after almost a quarter of a century, is it acceptable that we continue to expose UK firefighters to such hazards through PPE which is simply unfit for purpose in a wildfire scenario?

This is just one example but there are countless other missed opportunities for sharing good practice at the national and international level. It is time for fire and rescue services and departments across the world to share their knowledge and understanding and to be open to new ideas and solutions.

This should be led, endorsed, and coordinated by the relevant professional bodies such as the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the Comité Technique International de prevention et d’extinction de Feu (CTIF), amongst others.

The benefits of sharing of knowledge and understanding

International Cooperation: Fire incidents and emergencies ignore boundaries. By sharing knowledge and understanding, fire services can foster international cooperation and collaboration. This supports shared learning and development through the exchange best practices, and to adopt innovative approaches to firefighting and emergency response.

Rapid Technological Advancements: The field of firefighting and emergency response is constantly evolving, driven by technological advancements and new research. By sharing knowledge and information, fire services can stay updated on the latest developments in firefighting equipment, techniques, and safety protocols. This enables them to promptly adopt new technologies and practices that improve their effectiveness and efficiency in dealing with emergencies.

Hazard Identification and Mitigation: Different regions of the world face unique hazards and challenges when it comes to fire incidents. Sharing knowledge and understanding across fire services allows for a broader perspective on hazard identification and mitigation strategies. Fire services can learn about different types of hazards, such as wildfires, industrial fires, or urban fires, and gain insights into effective approaches for prevention, suppression, and mitigation specific to those hazards.

Training and Education: Fire services have a critical role in training and educating their personnel to ensure their readiness to handle emergencies. By sharing knowledge and understanding, fire services can enhance their training programs and curricula. They can incorporate lessons learned from other fire services, utilise case studies from different regions, and integrate diverse perspectives into their training materials. This helps in building a well-rounded and informed workforce capable of responding to a wide range of fire incidents.

Standards and Regulations: Sharing knowledge and understanding helps in the development and harmonisation of standards and regulations related to firefighting and emergency response. Fire services can exchange information about their regulatory frameworks, codes, and standards, enabling them to align their practices and ensure consistency in safety protocols. This collaboration promotes a higher level of professionalism and standardization within the firefighting community.

Research and Innovation: Sharing knowledge and understanding facilitates research and innovation in the field of firefighting and emergency response. Fire services can collaborate on research projects, share data, and exchange findings to improve their understanding of fire behaviour, fire dynamics, and human factors in emergencies. This collective effort leads to the development of new technologies, methodologies, and approaches that advance the overall effectiveness of firefighting operations.

By sharing knowledge and understanding, fire and rescue services and departments and civil defence forces across the world can work together to enhance their capabilities, improve safety standards, and ultimately save lives and protect property more effectively in the face of fire emergencies.

Let’s work collectively, by being more effective we can become far more efficient and deliver our services to the highest possible standards.

This exclusive article was originally published in the June 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

Receive the latest breaking news straight to your inbox