Thought Leadership – is it necessary within the fire sector? (hint, the answer is a strong yes)

10 October 2019

Jonathan O’Neill OBE, managing director at the Fire Protection Association discusses thought leadership within the fire industry.

Perhaps because ‘thought leadership’ has been seen as over-used management slang, that the concept has been voided in the fire sector. Or maybe it’s due to a period of consistently falling numbers of deaths and injuries from fire, coupled with the reduced number of fires attended by the service, that complacency has set in. But the fact is this has resulted in the ‘so-called’ industry leaders appearing reluctant to push the thought leadership envelope in recent years. And this has to change.

Arguably one of the reasons thought leadership has been missing from the sector is that some enablers and forums to encourage innovation within the fire sector, such the Brigade Command Course, the Fire Service College in Gloucestershire - and the Inspectorate, have either disappeared, or altered so significantly that they are no longer able to perform that function. The lack of a substantive Building Regulations Review for the past 14 years has also not helped.

Certainly the effects of a decade of austerity has been a major driver for the leaders of the fire and rescue service. And there can be little doubt that prior to the Grenfell tragedy the central government resource supporting fire, both in the built environment and from an intervention perspective, had been decimated, forcing many of the experienced old hands into early retirement, or to seek opportunities elsewhere.

But, in June 2017, Grenfell happened and unsurprisingly the focus and priorities changed. Despite the frustrating lack of progress, nearly two and a half years since the tragedy, no one can suggest that the Whitehall fire machine is not well-resourced by bright and able civil servants; and despite the distraction of Brexit, it is quite clear that the political will remains to effect fundamental reform and change. But that opportunity must not be lost. Fundamental reform and change still needs to be implemented.

Dame Judith Hackitt – recruited from outside the sector – has identified the problems and has provided her thoughts for reform. Most agree that her report probably isn’t the finished article, but it does provide a framework on which to build. What is abundantly clear though, is that deep thought needs to be given when designing an appropriate structure and format of our building regulations – not only to allow for innovation, but also to give the requisite assurances that modern buildings are resilient and safe. 

We also need to consider the model for enforcement, not just in relation to high-rise residential premises, but for the built environment as a whole. We need to encourage new ways of using innovation, not only to protect populations from fire, but also with the invention technologies and strategies we adopt. And finally, in a changing world we need to consider the structure and governance of the fire and rescue services themselves. 

So where is leadership – and thought leadership coming from in the sector? The National Fire Chief’s Council (NFCC) have of course emerged as advisors to government on fire and we have a Building Regulations Review. We also have relatively large new teams of talent in both the Home Office and the Ministry for Housing (MHCLG), all of which provides opportunity. I think it’s apparent that there is certainly a need for thought leadership across the sector and at such a pivotal time in the formation and development of policy there certainly appears to be the opportunity - so maybe it is the forum that requires defining. 

In 1990, fire minister Bob Neil, under pressure for Whitehall to generally downsize and recognising that his department were not best placed to drive the agenda forward, called together a broad range of interests to shape a sector led approach. Maybe through a fear of losing influence, the Fire Futures Report (which is still worth reading) was not fully supported by some important sector interests and so was never fully adopted. It was however the catalyst for the formation of the Fire Sector Federation, a group which has the membership of more than 70 organisations from across the fire sector.

Whilst I am not suggesting that the Fire Sector Federation is the only possible forum to encourage and enable thought leadership, it does exist, it meets regularly and attracts participation from leaders with a wealth of experience drawn from across the sector, so it’s one to consider and engage with. Perhaps another more appropriate forum will appear to plug the gap, but to my mind the need for thought leadership from the sector has never been so pronounced and so it will need to emerge soon.


Jonathan O’Neill is chairing the Fire Sector Summit on Tuesday 5 November 2019 at One Great George Street, London SW1P 3AA. 
Join the debate, as discussions held at the Summit contribute to Jonathan’s report for the Fire Minister, and the Building Regulations review. 
Click here for more information.
Thought Leadership – is it necessary within the fire sector? (hint, the answer is a strong yes)