LFB Commissioner Sir Ken Knight
Published: 01 April, 2007
London Fire Brigade is investing £1.7 million in additional training resources for its operational staff over the next two years. Sir Ken Knight, Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, believes that the traditional role of firefighters has changed and has become even more challenging. Because of this the LFB is making the major investment to counteract the increasing pressures on personnel.
London Fire Brigade is the third largest firefighting organisation in the world after New York and Tokyo Fire Departments. Sir Ken’s patch covers 1,587 square kilometres of Greater London which has a population of seven million residents, a figure which increases to 12 million with an influx of commuters and visitors. It was under Sir Ken’s leadership that the LFB faced one of the most significant mass casualty incidents to hit the UK in recent times, the 7th July tube bombings of 2005.
In the last 50 years the daily work of firefighters has changed immensely, with ‘regulatory fire safety’ and ‘community fire safety’ joining fire and rescue work as part of their daily responsibilities. However, with the emergence of a new kind of terrorist threat at the beginning of the 21st century, another, fourth, dimension has been added. In that respect the World Trade Centre bombings of 2001 and the attacks on the London Underground four years later have proved to be major turning points for London’s fire and rescue service – particularly in the area of training and development.
“The golden thread running through all these responsibilities is training and personal development. The problem we foresaw was an increasingly large pressure on firefighters’ time, productivity and availability. We have to maintain the level of those wider skill sets by maintaining the level of training and competence they require. Not only to ensure they do the job well within the community but to ensure their own safety. The £1.7 million pounds that has been allocated allows us to refocus on the amount and type of training that we need to apply to firefighters in 2007 and beyond,” said Sir Ken.
Sadly, in 2004, two London firefighters died while on duty. But, as Sir Ken explains, although tragic, this is a very rare occurrence within the UK fire and rescue service – these fatalities being the first in the London Fire Brigade for over ten years.
“This was a deep tragedy of course, as any firefighter death is,” he continued. “However, these rare occurences show that we have been managing firefighter safety extremely well. It is welcome that firefighter injuries and losses have become unusual in a high hazard industry.”
To ensure this continues, London Fire Brigade has focused its extra investment on the three risk critical areas of real fire experience, incident command and breathing apparatus.
London has around 6,000 operational firefighters, based at 112 fire stations throughout the capital and Real Fire Training Mobile Units will ensure that they all have access to an annual ‘real fire training’ experience, without having to travel to a central training site. The Brigade will now have two units which can travel to different fire station locations – giving firefighters the opportunity to practice tackling different types of fire in a realistic but controlled environment alongside fire behaviour training.
“We don’t currently have a centralised hot fire training facility to put firefighters through real firefighting experiences so we decided to purchase real fire training mobile units that we could take to firefighters. We have already trialled one of these and it has proved very successful. The trainers consist of a very large portable unit with an LPG and fire facility which allows our firefighters to experience real scenarios such as flashover and backdraft, under supervision. Purchasing a second mobile unit will ensure that all our firefighters have real fire training experience within the next twelve months,” said Sir Ken.
The second area of investment concentrates on incident command. An additional two day residential course will now compliment existing training in the areas of tactical decision making and crew deployment during incidents, ensuring that the skills and knowledge of the Brigade’s first line commanders, crew, watch and station managers are continually updated.
Finally, funding for additional breathing apparatus equipment will enable the Brigade to establish an additional dedicated two day breathing apparatus ‘continuation training course’ for all its firefighters and crew managers. Continuation training will now be provided in addition to the 20 day breathing apparatus programme delivered to all trainee firefighters and the new two day courses will supplement the existing station based continuation training and assessments that firefighters already receive.
The additional investment in these three key areas reflects the changes introduced by the LFB to establish a ‘dynamic and intelligent operational training system.’ This has consolidated the Brigade’s existing training and development strategy by creating a tool which identifies ‘risk critical’ training needs and ensures that the appropriate training can be delivered to meet those needs responsively and quickly to all firefighters.
“It’s a very big investment,” says the Commissioner. “It had wide support from a number of areas, including the Fire Authority, with cross-party political support. It gave us the opportunity to re-evaluate the four dimensions of firefighting activities. Investing in operational training and investing in firefighter safety will translate into improved operational effectiveness for the community. There is very little higher on our agenda here than to have safe and competent firefighters – and training is the key.”
The challenge for the LFB is particularly great because of the number of firefighters working for the Brigade and because of the other pressures on firefighters’ time – from specialist training to counteract the terrorist threat through to community fire safety work. According to Sir Ken the role of a firefighter has to be in balance.
Cities face different risks today
“There is some comparison between the role of a London firefighter and the role of a firefighter who works in a rural area. However each fire brigade has to be prepared for the risks that its firefighters face. I have been a Chief of two other fire brigades and the risks that we dealt with in both of those brigades were different from London and different from each other.
“London has very special risks, particularly in the new age of terrorism. We have always planned on the basis that such terrorist attacks are likely to happen. It has always been a matter of when – and not if. The reality is that we have to prepare for these events just the same as for a fire occurring. It needs to be in our normal line of business.
“We are prepared for all the eventualities that we have assessed as risks. Terrorism is one of those risks – not more important, just different – and all our personnel are trained to deal with whatever risks and eventualities they may have to face,” said Sir Ken.
To help with that preparation LFB works closely with a range of professional organisations and has forged some very strong links with its international colleagues. LFB officers recently had an exchange with Paris Fire Brigade where issues discussed included the comparative risks facing the Paris Metro and the London Underground.
London Fire Brigade’s connections with USA fire and rescue services are also excellent, according to Sir Ken. Major cities there have to cope with similar risks to London and currently, there is an ongoing exchange of knowledge and experience crossing the Atlantic between London, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Boston. “We have much to share and much to learn, nationwide, Europe-wide and worldwide. We are all, frankly, facing this worldwide risk which will be with us for at least another generation,” he said.
Small scale incidents
Sir Ken sees the type of terrorism London experienced in the 1980s as very different than the kind it faces today. He bases his opinion on the fact that in the 1980s coded warnings were given, which offered the opportunity to evacuate buildings. It was aimed at causing maximum disruption, and often destruction.
“In general – although not wholly – there was not much loss of life on the UK mainland. The kind of terrorism we are facing today showed itself on 7 July 2005, when the UK was targeted for the first time by suicide bombers. This kind of terrorism comes without warning. It is deliberately aimed at causing death and injury amongst as many members of the public as possible and this requires both a new vigilance from the public and a new response from the emergency services.
“The partnership that we have in London to meet that challenge is not just about the emergency services though. It is a very wide partnership, which as well as the emergency services, involves the business community, local authorities and the voluntary sector, all of which play their part in planning and preparing for such an eventuality. That planning across London is what we call ‘resilience’ and it is not just about terrorism. It could also be about a major epidemic.”
The Commissioner makes it very clear that new equipment acquired by the LFB for dealing with chemical or hazard identification, spillages and even decontamination is not solely for use in the aftermath of potential terrorist attacks. It is just as effective in the case of accidental spillages involving chemicals and other hazardous materials.
“To ensure pollution risks are minimised at incidents we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Environment Agency to allow us to carry new equipment on every one of our frontline pumping appliances. There are 168 frontline pumping appliances across London, all carrying equipment to protect the environment in the event of a chemical spillage or water run-off.
“These aren’t necessarily the huge incidents such as Buncefield, but, for example, the day-to-day spillages of petrol and chemicals that often occur at road traffic collisions and which can also cause great environmental damage. Recently the equipment was used to seal a leaking gas valve on an LPG-powered transit van to prevent it from causing harm,” said Sir Ken.
The Brigade also maintains five large-scale spillage containment kits designed for larger incidents, strategically sited around London. These kits carry a more sophisticated level of pollution control equipment and have large capacity to block drains and to prevent substances from entering the watercourse. They also contain special pumps that can pump semi-solids as well as gas detection and gas sealing equipment.
The agreement signed with the Environment Agency (EA) has strengthened what was already a close working relationship and covers areas such as agreed responsibilities during an incident, the exchange of information and risk assessment. It has also seen EA officers helping the LFB with training, and the Brigade now has 59 trained Hazardous Materials and Environmental Protection Officers (HEO’s) spread across London who can be despatched to the scene of an accident to advise Incident Commanders on pollution control.
Sir Ken comments: “The Environment Agency is a key lead player in these issues. We also have our own scientific advisers who advise us on chemical and HazMat incidents. The reason for enlisting all this expertise is that as soon as you start to close down areas of London because of a pollution or chemical spillage it results in huge disruption to traffic systems and actually has a real cost to the economy as people have to be evacuated from buildings and businesses are brought to a halt. We have to ensure that London as a city remains vibrant and active.”
Another disruptive hazard that the LFB is very concerned about is the number of acetylene cylinder fires it is being called to deal with – a fire involving acetylene cylinders causes major disruption in the capital on average once a month. Recently a fire involving one of these cylinders at Kings Cross resulted in all trains in and out of the station being cancelled for 24 hours. Acetylene - used for hot cutting – is an extremely unstable gas and can cause massive explosions and consequently huge damage. Due to this risk every time one of these cylinders become involved in a fire, or if flames occur in the proximity of an acetylene cylinder, a 200-metre hazard zone has to be created for 24-hours whilst the cylinder is cooled.
The LFB is currently campaigning for greater awareness about this dangerous gas and for a reduction in its use. “As well as the danger, we are concerned about the real cost of these incidents to Londoners in terms of shutdowns to the transport network affecting road and rail, lost business income and inconvenience to evacuated residents. There are alternatives. We don’t think it could be replaced entirely, there is some hot cutting that can only be done with acetylene, but it is overused. There is a national debate taking place about how to reduce the risk and we are working very closely with the cylinder industry and insurers, trying to find ways of either reducing its use or to limit the effects. We are very conscious about the effects of fire as a pollutant and its cost to the economy. We have seen a reduction in car fires and a reduction of fires in general due to the positive action we are taking. This is not only good news because there is less loss of life, but it does actually reduce pollutants in the atmosphere, and, in turn plays an important part in environmental sustainability.”