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Deputy Commissioner Richard Mills retires from London Fire Brigade

04 October 2022

ON MONDAY 3 October, the London Fire Brigade’s Deputy Commissioner Richard Mills took part in his final roll call at Stratford Fire Station after 30 years’ dedicated service. During those three decades, Mills has played a key role in many crucial changes to the Brigade’s operational policies and equipment, from overhauling the response to high-rise firefighting through to the introduction of the Fire Survival Guidance App and securing the Marauding Terrorist Agreement with the Fire Brigades Union.

All of these changes have allowed the Brigade to better serve the communities of London and adapt to the changing built environment. Most importantly in recent times, Mills led the Brigade’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic through two exceptionally challenging years that required tough decisions to keep the Fire and Rescue Service running effectively for the people of London.

Over his long career, Mills has been involved in many significant incidents including the London riots, where he served as the Borough Commander for Haringey, a large fire at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and, of course, the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017.

The Deputy Commissioner said: “Over the years, the role of the firefighter has evolved. It has been shaped by moments in history which have led to change. Historic moments such as the fire at Kings Cross Station, the 9/11 terror attacks, the 7/7 London bombings and the Grenfell Tower fire have changed our direction of travel. We’ve learned from and changed as a result of these historic moments and, indeed, from every incident we attend.”

Mills continued: “We have recognised the need to adapt. I’ve witnessed many changes throughout my career in the ways in which we fight fires. There have been so many developments to our response over the years and the equipment we use that have enabled us to acclimatise to the changing environment. I’m proud to have played a role in that transformation.”

Looking back

Mills began his career in 1992 as a fresh-faced 19-year-old at Leytonstone Fire Station. His youth was a novelty to the watch he joined as the other firefighters were all experienced and had been serving in the Brigade for a long time.

When he first joined the Brigade, it was very different to the present day. In his first locker there was a pair of yellow plastic leggings, which had been part of the uniform in the 1980s. The equipment was more basic and the breathing apparatus was twice the weight of what it is now, weighing in at around 19 kg. In today’s world, it weighs about 10 kg. There were no computers at fire stations, either. Crews had to fill-in their incident returns using a typewriter.

Mills observed: “One of the most important changes I’ve seen over the years is the improvement in the support to which firefighters have access. There has been a wide variety of incidents during my 30 years. I’ve seen very harrowing sights that will stay with me. Being a firefighter is not only physically challenging, but mentally challenging as well.”

On that last point, Mills elaborated: “When I first joined, there wasn’t anywhere to go to in order to talk about what you had seen or how you were feeling. The views on mental health were very different to what they are now. Today, mental health is something that’s discussed more openly. The Brigade has a counselling service, which is accessible to all members of staff. After a challenging incident, the crew members can talk freely about it and we check on them.”

Further, Mills stated: “We are not machines. Under the uniform we are human and can be affected by what we see. I think that can sometimes be forgotten. We are now in a position whereby we can openly discuss how we are feeling, which is a such a positive step forward.”

New challenges

Now that he’s hanging up his uniform, Mills will be taking on a new challenge – that of family life. After 30 years of varying shift patterns, he’s looking forward to spending time focusing on his children and looking after the daily school run.

“I’m incredibly grateful for what the Brigade has given me,” enthused Mills. “A career with ongoing personal development, life skills and opportunities I wouldn’t have had in any other job. I’m proud of the changes and transformation I’ve seen and played a part in. I’m also confident that the people and teams I leave behind at the Brigade will continue to drive forward the change that’s needed to ensure our communities receive the services they need.”

In conclusion, Mills affirmed: “I’m honoured to have served at the Brigade and proud of everyone I have worked with. Regardless of anything, when there’s a moment of adversity, everyone always steps up to the mark. Everyone is willing to ‘go the extra mile’ to serve the people of London. One thing you realise with firefighting is that, no matter whether you attend the richest or the poorest address and no matter the value of the property, it’s a traumatic experience that effects everyone in the same way.”

Mills recalled an incident where a man had started a fire to heat a can of beans, which was all he had. After dealing with the fire, the crew members took it upon themselves to go away and buy the man some food. “Sometimes, being a firefighter is about doing the right thing rather than what’s in the job description.”