Close Up With Fire Boss Ian Bowell
Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service Area Commander Ian Bowell talks about the need for more on-call firefighters, Grenfell, merging with the police, the importance of prevention, and why it will be sad day when he has to call it a day.
Maybe dealing with 10 incidents in the county, two on the Shotley peninsula, at the same time on a scorching hot summer’s day, is not exactly the norm even for Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service, it does demonstrate the importance of firefighters and their equipment and the pressure on resources.
Ian Bowell has nearly 30 years in the fire service under his belt and has pretty much seen it all.
From being a part-time retained fireman in Felixstowe to Area Commander with responsibility for response, Ian has seen big changes in the way the fire service has changed, and reacted, to continuous budget cuts which has seen a reduction in firefighters and the way it has adapted.
That has meant ensuring he has enough firefighters covering all eventualities from its 35 stations countywide, especially yesterday when Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service had to deal with 41 incidents, including 10 at the same time, with nearly 30 emergency vehicles involved in fighting a field fire at Chelmondiston, while five miles up the road in Erwarton there was a house fire, and eight other issues going on simultaneously in the county.
“Like all public services we are under scrutiny and under pressure to be as efficient and effective as possible,” said AC Bowell.
“We are constantly looking at ways where we can use the resource we have more effectively.
“We are a rural service with 400 on-call firefighters and 180 full time firefighters so we are very reliant on the on-call firefighters.
"The pressure and commitment is a big one. They have to be committed to their local fire station and we have to balance their availability to keep our fire engines available for emergencies.
“One of my priorities as head of response is day-time availability. We have our full-time firefighters but we rely heavily on our on-call firefighters to respond effectively in our rural areas.”
The weekend was no easier, as Holbrook fire station prepared for an Open Day to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and there was a delay as they dealt with a house ire in Chelmondiston.
AC Bowell said: “We had a couple of shouts the day before then on the morning we had a fire in a neighbouring village, which they were able to respond to quickly.
“That showed how important on-call firefighters are. They do it is a public service whenthey go out to help their community and they take it very personally to be able to respond.
“I have nothing but admiration for on-call firefighters. I started as one nearly 30 years ago and the commitment we ask of them and the commitment they give is absolutely phenomenal.”
Dealing with fields of stubble threatening to spread to houseboats, may be uniquely Suffolk, but AC Bowell is also well aware of what could happen in the few high rise the county has, and the dangers firefighters face – as Grenfell demonstrated.
“Grenfell was an absolute phenomenon the likes of which I really do hope we never see again.
“I also hope some of important things from the tragedy and loss of life which come out of the public inquiry will see changes in terms of legislation and building design to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”
It has always taken a special kind of person to become a firefighter, courage, discipline, intelligence is compulsory.
The equipment they have to do the job efficiently, and as safely as possible, has changed with better clothing, high pressure hoses and reels far better, more modern fire engines with safety features.
Years of experience and education has also meant the fire service understands better how fire behaves and it is aware of the environment it has to deal with under extreme circumstances more.
“In the past nationally at times, the fire service has been too risk averse. We are coming away from that now,” said AC Bowell. “Many years ago we used to face risks without any question and that was also wrong. The pendulum then swung too far the other way and we have evidence nationally where we perhaps have not got it quite right but we are much better now at balancing risk. Pressure on resources has also made us look at and challenge everything we do, to make sure it is still the right thing to do.”
Although it seems some people never listen, firefighters will never stop trying to get simple messages across: Install a smoke alarm, don't light a barbecue on parched meadow or woodland, and don’t use your phone and drive – among other safety messages we ignore at our peril.
While his responsibility is response, AC Powell uses prevention is a mantra and added: “When I first joined, the fire service was just about responding to incidents.
“Around about the mid-90s prevention started to gather pace and now we regard prevention as important as protection and response.
If we can prevent a fire or an accident occurring it is far better than us responding to it in an emergency response.”
Ironically, the fire service’s success in prevention can lead to a perceived lack of need in certain accountancy areas to fund active personnel and updating equipment, but AC Bowell refuses to complain about a constant tightening of the old webbed belt.
He said: “It is incumbent on people like me to ensure our district, borough and county councilors, cabinet members and those on the fire authority understand the risk, understand exactly what it is we do and how we work.
“We are embedded with other agencies such as healthcare, social care and education and we probably need be better in selling ourselves as role models.
“A firefighter is a fantastic role model for a young person to aspire too and to work with within schools and other environments where things perhaps have not gone as well as hoped. We can help get them back on track where other may not have been able to do that. We have fabulous evidence in doing that.
“It is about striking a balance about looking at how we have done things in the past, making sure it is still the right thing to do, but also taking on the positive things regarding prevention that a firefighter does and remembering things can go wrong and when it does it is about the fire service responding.”
One option, financially and politically, is to merge the emergency services, especially to counter a £240,000 budget reduction this financial year, but there will always be resistance due to tradition and pride in one’s own branch.
“It is really important that we work as closely as we can with any partner agency that can help people enjoy a better and safer life,” said AC Bowell. “We work hand in hand with the police, ambulance service and coastguard, ever since I have been in the job.
“The emerging threats of terrorism and modern day challenges we face just highlight the need to work closely together.
“From a premises perspective, we need to make sure we are spending our Suffolk pound the best way we can.
“Shared space makes perfect sense. Those things allow us to interact with our colleagues in other services better. We already share with ambulance stations and that allows us to talk and plan.
“We work with the police at 11 stations, that could increase to 15, with Safer Neighbourhood teams. It means we have a better interaction where we are getting to know and work with those before we meet an incident.”
There has also been talk that Police and Crime Commissioner also takes responsibility for the Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service, but there doesn't appear to be much appetite for that as yet.
AC Bowell bats that away and added: “In terms of the political aspect? Who knows? The fire service has been under various government department It is currently the Home Office.
“If we continue to deliver a good service, the best service we possibly can to the public, then that should be fine.
“Tim is very passionate about getting the best for Suffolk and if merging is what happens in the fullness of time is a decision for Suffolk County Council Cabinet.
“As a Fire Service officer, my job is to make sure we have the resources from whoever is the fire authority and I spend that efficiently and effectively to provide the best possible service for the public.”
For all the dark days, and politics involved in being a high-ranking fire officer Ian remains very much in love with his job.
“I can remember starting out wearing a breathing apparatus and going in and rescuing people with colleagues. Now I’m responsible for the services’ response at 35 stations working with the chief officer – it's still fantastic. Yes, it has had its moments but even with the bad days the fire service has been a fantastic career. I would advocate it to anyone and it will be sad day for me when my career comes to an end.”
AC Bowell’s final message?
“Enjoy life. Suffolk is wonderful place to live but please drive carefully, install a smoke alarm and if you have an inkling about becoming a firefighter please come and talk to us. We are constantly recruiting at our on-call stations.”
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