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Fighting Fires With Fire: The State of the Nation

01 October 2020

In an exclusive interview for Fire Safety Matters, Western Business Media’s CEO Mark Sennett chats with Paul Pope (Group business development director at Global Fire Equipment and also a director of the Fire Industry Association) and Mike Tobin (chair of the Independent Fire Engineering and Distributors Association) about the current ‘State of the Nation’ in the UK’s fire industry. The impact of COVID-19, the overriding need for competency and the likely effects of Brexit are very much under the microscope

Mark Sennett: From your own perspectives, what have been the most significant impacts of COVID-19 on the fire sector here in the UK?

Paul Pope: The most pressing issue that has affected so many is the financial impact already realised for businesses due to the almost complete shutting down of the world’s economy. That’s the most hard-hitting impact on the fire industry itself and its constituent practitioners.

For me, the second one centres on the necessary work transacted in conjunction with the Fire Industry Association (FIA) in terms of gaining clarification from the Government around fire system engineers qualifying for key worker status, thereby enabling them access to critical areas of the nation’s infrastructure, such as the temporary Nightingale Hospitals, so that they could take on necessary maintenance tasks.

As an international business, we’re aware that our customers have had some tragic instances of their own engineers losing their lives to COVID-19 as a result of conducting their daily work on site. For example, an engineer looking after key sites for one of our Brazilian customers contracted the virus during his day-to-day work and, tragically, he died.

We must recognise that people in many sectors, the fire sector among them, have been putting themselves at risk throughout this pandemic. By no means has our sector been immune to what has been happening. Engineers have not always been on the front line, but they’ve been very close to it. Our thoughts and prayers go out to each and every family affected by this terrible situation.

Mike Tobin: I would agree with Paul. Initially, the financial impact and the fact that everything in our industry just seemed to grind to a halt over a 24-hour period was most certainly an issue. We had to wait for clarity from the Government on the next steps.

In terms of the key worker status, I’m aware that we had members being stopped by the police. We had to issue stickers for our members so that they had proof they were classed as key workers.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been a significant sticking point as well. I found myself in the position whereby I went from being the chairman of IFEDA to helping to source PPE for members because it was that difficult to do so. In truth, I don’t feel this should have been the case.

Mark Sennett: What do you think the long-term impacts of COVID-19 will be on the fire sector?

Paul Pope: I believe everyone will have a focus on the financial recovery of their businesses and supporting individuals who’ve met with financial hardship. The present situation may well develop into a worldwide recession. Let’s hope not, but I don’t think we’re over the worst of this by any means.

What happens in the longer term will depend on how quickly things can be back to normal and on a safe footing for everyone. If that takes a significant amount of time then there could be even more hardship for those already suffering. I honestly believe that, as the business world and social life slowly returns to normal, remaining vigilant and maintaining everyone’s awareness around potential exposure to the virus has to be on all of our minds.

Put simply, we cannot afford to lapse. We must remain resolute and keep the positive momentum going until such time that we’re really sure we’re out of danger. We must all play our part in this respect.

Mike Tobin: Again, I would agree with Paul on this. Speaking from the perspective of IFEDA, we’re trying to drive a better quality service and a better industry. When recession hits, people tend to go with the cheapest price which can then drive down quality. The financial impact of the virus is horrendous, and we could see the ramifications of this pandemic for many years to come.

In general, I’m particularly concerned about the impact this situation is going to exert on the quality of the industry as a whole.

Mark Sennett: Can you explain precisely how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected your normal day-to-day business activities?

Paul Pope: Maintaining a systems manufacturing business that’s international in scope has been quite challenging. Our business is heavily reliant on logistics. Making sure that products are in the right place at the right time in order to support the work others are doing is a very big responsibility. We’re lucky in that we’re blessed with a good team that’s able to manage the logistics and has been very strong in its work.

Necessarily, we’ve had to focus on keeping our staff safe and out of harm’s way. Implementing common sense practices within the business in areas where there was even the slightest risk has been of paramount importance.

We’re based in the European Union (EU) with operations in the UK. In the EU, we were lucky not to have many COVID-19 cases so there hasn’t been too much business disruption and risk. The business has continued to operate at 100% capacity. It was just purely the logistics of facilitating product being shipped around the world, what with airlines being grounded and also the cost of freight going through the roof. It has certainly become very expensive to move things around the planet just now.

Mark Sennett: When it comes to improved competencies in the fire sector, why do you believe there needs to be an increased focus on skills?

Paul Pope: To tackle some of the shortfalls in the construction industry, a Competency Steering Group was formed to address the findings outlined in the Hackitt Report. That document clearly identifies the need for professional improvement. In point of fact, the word ‘competency’ is mentioned no less than 152 times within Dame Judith’s final report.

Right across the fire sector, companies and individuals alike will need to provide proof of their competency. This brings into play the subject of third party certification. It will almost certainly be recommended that those working in the industry should achieve a minimum Level 3 qualification relevant to the area of their expertise. I think that’s a key topic for all fire sector businesses to focus on and work towards. Individuals and businesses alike have to work to prove their competency. This leaves us all being faced with the challenge of raising the bar on professionalism and competency in the fire sector.

Going back to the pricing issue for a moment, it must also be recognised that price does drive down competencies. No-one can do a decent job if that job’s being completed on the cheap. Pricing is most definitely an issue for the industry to be aware of and act upon.

Mike Tobin: It’s my passion that we must drive forward with training and competency across our industry. My concern is that there has been a good deal of online training of late. This is great in that training in any format is better than none at all, but I still feel, first and foremost, there’s a need for people to actually do the job. We seem to be losing that emphasis in terms of the hands-on approach to doing what we’re supposed to be doing on a day-to-day basis. It’s all well and good reading from an instruction manual, but actually performing tasks first hand is key for me.

There needs to be a hands-on approach towards training. We don’t send somebody out in a car simply because they’ve read the Highway Code, yet we’ll send a fire alarm engineer out into the industry just because they’ve completed a textbook exercise. We need to widen the scope a little. It should be a sensible approach, and one not based solely on the fact that a given box has been ticked. That’s where I stand on this issue.

Paul Pope: I would wholeheartedly concur with Mike’s comments. I firmly believe that hands-on experience at the coalface, knowing what to do and being trained by somebody who is competent in the field is absolutely relevant. The Government will look at qualifications, but this isn’t all that needs to be considered.

The Government is seeking proof of competency in terms of qualifications backed by OFQUAL. While these may represent the minimum levels of competency, I think if individuals are able to log all of their experience alongside those qualifications, and provide evidence of having been trained by top engineers, then that’s more relevant to our industry, albeit recognising that the qualifications prove individuals are capable of learning the basics on paper. Doing the real job is really where it’s most important.

Mark Sennett: With all of that in mind, in your view what’s the most practical way in which to broadly and successfully upskill the sector?

Paul Pope: Well, I cannot possibly comment on all of the courses out there, and there are many, but I would advise every individual to verify all of the training that they consider undertaking. It’s important to measure its relevance to the sector and to review the comments of others on the training provided in order to help determine whether it’s relevant. People are investing their time and hard-earned money in training so deriving value for that money and from the instruction on offer is vital, and particularly so at the present time.

At present, some engineers are furloughed or they’re in isolation. The Government has said that, while engineers find themselves in one of these two situations, they can continue with their professional development within the Government’s own rules. It’s a great time for completing expertise training not related to physical work on site. When back on the road, engineers can then follow this up with the hands-on instruction.

Mike Tobin: Speaking in an idealistic mode, I would like to see training centres across the UK where practitioners can go back to the original ways of learning their trade before going out on site. Realistically, and given the financial impact that COVID-19 has exerted, that’s not practical at the moment.

We need to adopt a sensible approach towards any training. I was once told that knowledge is power, so the more training to which the industry and its practitioner cohort has access, hopefully the better the industry will become.

If I’m being totally honest, I just think we’ve been guilty of being too slow off the mark. It has taken Dame Judith Hackitt to shout at the industry before someone has looked at this issue with any great degree of seriousness.

Mark Sennett: What do you believe will be the biggest impact of Brexit when it comes to the fire sector?

Paul Pope: First and foremost, the key issue here is whether we leave the EU with or without a deal. Either result will change the whole landscape. With a deal, we first need to see the new trading arrangements. Without a deal, there will be immediate and significant implications for trade, notably so in relation to cross-border trade and in terms of the approvals process around products.

On the latter, I have no clarification of what’s required post-Brexit. There have been calls for a new product mark for the UK, but there’s no way of achieving this in relation to the timelines that have been set. We’re talking about January next year, don’t forget. There’s no advice on the relevant Government websites to say who’s responsible for this process, how we’re going to do it and what the cost might be to industry to implement it all.

Frankly, there are so many unanswered questions which we’re confronted with today. It’s fair to say the situation is something of a minefield.

Mike Tobin: My heart goes out to the manufacturers, to be honest. This couldn’t be a more difficult time for them with COVID-19 in play and Brexit looming ever larger on the horizon. As I’ve mentioned, we have the potential for a global recession. It’s a hugely difficult time for manufacturers. The wheels will keep turning for fire extinguisher engineers and fire alarm engineers, for example, because such systems are a mandatory requirement, but those wheels will probably turn a lot slower than usual.

Mark Sennett: How much worse might the situation be if the UK does end up leaving the EU without a deal having been struck?

Paul Pope: Once the transition period ends on Thursday 31 December this year, the UK will be designated as a third country by the EU. In other words, we will not be a member trading partner. There are several immediate implications of this situation. First, tariffs will apply to most UK exports. As yet, we don’t know what they are and what they will be.

Second, all UK exports will have to undergo new customs procedures while regulated goods, such as many of those we manufacture within the fire safety sector, will need to have additional licences in order to pass through additional procedures. The net result of all this is going to be significant delay and significant increases in costs while we wait for a new deal to be agreed. This, of course, could well take some time.

Everybody is then left in a situation with which they’re unfamiliar. Guidance and leadership is really needed right now for us to navigate this period with any degree of success. Remember that something like obtaining an Economic Operator Registration and Identification number will take time. You cannot trade without one of these.

Recently, I put forward a document that has been published by the FIA. It’s on international trade preparation checklists and outlines all of this information, so there is guidance available. Without clear guidance from the Government to date, every business now has to devise and have in place its own back-up plans. Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. Businesses cannot afford to be left in a situation where they don’t have contingency planning in place, otherwise they could well be left in an extremely vulnerable position.

Mike Tobin: If we’re being realistic, we’ve seen what can happen when the working relationships break down between ourselves and the EU. Remember those strikes many years ago and the supply and demand issues we subsequently had to face? I can probably see that happening again.

Mark Sennett: Finally, Paul, as an EU-based manufacturer, how is Global Fire Equipment going to support its UK customers going forward?

Paul Pope: The UK is a very important market for us. We’re investing in partnerships right now and we’re very much here for the long-term regardless of the final Brexit outcome.

Only recently, our UK partners have moved into larger premises which allows us to hold more stock in the UK so that we can avoid the border delays. We’re holding critical parts for real-time maintenance and repairs. The support of products is important for the ongoing provision of UK-based training schemes.

Being based in the EU, the European side of the business is fairly secure in terms of certifications and logistics in relation to moving product around. It’s fair to say that the UK is more vulnerable for everybody right now, but we’ll be doing everything we can to support our business here.