Monday, 8 October 2012

Musing over old books

Josephus has been perusing old books again, it is one of his weaknesses;  Project Gutenberg  (here) is a truly valuable resource for those of us who do not think that the world began with the election of the Blessed Tony Bliar.  These are thoughts provoked by reading one such text.

The following is an extract from a seminal work in the history of the UK fire service: Fire Prevention and Fire Extinction by James Braidwood, published by Bell and Daldy, 186 Fleet Street in 1866. This was during Braidwood's time as superintendent of the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment, before his move to London. (the complete work is available as an e-book through project Gutenburg.)

On the Training of Firemen: (page 47)


… You will frequently find men who, although they excel in the mechanical parts of their own professions, are yet so devoid of judgement and resources, that when any thing occurs which they have not been taught, or have not been able to foresee, they are completely at a loss.

It is therefore of immense importance to procure men on whose coolness and judgement you can depend. … this respect tends greatly to keep up the character of the corps to which they belong, and which ought never to be lost sight of.

============end quote============

This was my experience of “men” as they were when I joined the service and indeed, for the large part of both men and women until the current century began and the sitting government determined that the one public service that the public never, or at least very, very rarely complained of, was in need of drastic reformation, particularly to increase levels of safety to the fire-fighter.

This was to be done by imposing a system of competence-based training, which, by definition, prepares people only for what it prepares them for and dissuades strongly any use of initiative or, to use an horrific strangulation of my mother tongue, any thinking “outside the box.” (possibly any thinking at all come to think of it!) Not only that, but changes in working conditions were encouraged that actively broke up the “watch culture”, deemed to be universally dangerous, evil and worthy of no change save abolition.

So for 137 years, fire services worked upon the principle of the individual using their judgement and upon a tight working unit, exhibiting espirit-de-corps to aid team-working, then in 2003 this was to be superceded by a system that removes both of these key attributes. These changes were carried out because of the loss of fire-fighter lives in London, (Specifically, Villiers Road and Gillender Street where failure to follow procedures was indicated as the cause of death. FBU p12; para 15) they were largely designed in London and may well have tackled some of the local problems that an organisation so large as the London Fire Brigade exhibited. However, much to the surprise of Whitehall and Westminster, (and also the BBC apparently) of the (2001 census) ~59 million people in the UK, over 50 million of them do not live in London. However, the aim was reduction in death and serious injury for fire-fighters, was this aim achieved?

It appears not. Although for the lay-person the figures are very difficult to track down, possibly because it is not a trend that government, of any persuasion, wishes to be widely known, fire-fighter deaths have grown steadily over the years since 2003. According to a BBC article “There were no fire-fighter deaths in 1997, 1998 or 2001, and one in each of 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003, while two were killed on operations in 2004, 2005 and 2006.” (BBC) So we swapped 4 deaths in 7 years for 6 deaths in 3 years, and that was before the tragedy in Atherstone provided a statistical bulge.

Why is it that in the twenty-first century, anything “old” is necessarily “bad”, that anything not invented yesterday cannot have any worth at all? Why is it that fully functional services, working hard to update themselves in many ways without government imposition, in fact, often in the face of advice from the now abolished Fire Service Inspectorate, had to be totally “reformed”? Why, when new working practices, new equipment and new areas of responsibility had been developed, why when the female fire-fighter was becoming less of a “one-off” and being accepted as a part of the modern service was Braidwood's advice not only totally ignored but effectively countermanded?

If you can answer this question, then you are a better man than I, whatever your sex.

1 comment:

  1. Funny how that esprit d'corps became something to be destroyed and denigrated by those parachuted into the service - or thrust upon it from outside - by our political masters of the time. It is my belief that the service was the victim of the prevailing drive to make every public service more "representative" of the "community" it supposedly served.

    To achieve this a way had to be found to fast forward the allegedly 'under represented' members of the service in the higher ranks. The only way was to destroy the 'promotion progression' and that, sadly, was very ably aided and abetted by the FBU who apparently believed this would remove the 'elitist' 'officers' and allow the station lag to dictate the direction. I did overhear a pair of civil servants boasting that the then recent appointment of a certain ex-marketing director as "Chief Executive" of a large unitary authority service, was a "nail in the coffin" of the "elitist fire and rescue service."

    Interesting how so former clerical staff of the LFEPA are now occupying positions of "Assistant Chief" or equivalent in various County services and making decisions which impact heavily on operations - without any qualification or expertise to guide them ...

    One can only wonder at the agenda of the then government.