Having just returned from a week in the wonderfully picturesque and snow covered Portes de Soleil ski area on the French and Swiss border, imagine my surprise to arrive at Gatwick Airport on Monday evening and to be met by Matt, who said it had taken him two hours to drive to Gatwick from Brighton. I must say that my previous Support Officers have been known to take the odd wrong turning now and again, particularly on the M42 toll road interchange, but I always thought the Brighton to Gatwick run was relatively straightforward, so unless Matt had borrowed one of the cars from the road traffic collision compound at Service Training Centre (STC), there must be some other reason.
As many people found out, it was the snow, brilliant stuff in the Alps but less fun on the tarmac. We were heading for Brighton to meet up with the staff who would be working at the Local Government Association (LGA) Fire Conference at the Metropole Hotel and were due to have a meal together at 7.30pm. However, we became stuck along with hundreds of others in the massive queues on the M23 and A23 and eventually got home at around 2.30am after 7 hours, with Matt having been in the car for nearly 11 hours!
When we eventually got to the Conference the next morning, there were stories from people who had travelled from across the country with our old friend Jon Hall, also being stuck in the queues, and taking nearly ten hours to get from Gloucester to Brighton. At one point I got out of the car and walked about a mile along the hard shoulder to Pease Pottage Services at around 11pm to get Matt and myself some food and drink. I got back to the car about an hour later with a couple of chocolate brownies and some foul tasting fruit drink (not much stock left) with Matt having only driven about 20 yards in that time. Now, I know he's a steady driver, but that's taking the message to reduce your speed just a little too seriously!
You could probably choose a Pope quicker than you can drive from Gatwick to Seaford and the College of Cardinals did just that with the "white smoke" rising from the chimney on the Sistine Chapel just after 7.00pm on Wednesday, where we saw Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires elected to head the Catholic Church, taking the name Pope Francis.
I can recall visiting the Sistine Chapel a couple of years ago and being stunned by the sheer magnificence of the Renaissance art. I have always thought that I have a wonderful view from my office at headquarters, but I have to concede that the Vatican just about trumps the views across Eastbourne, although my favourite view in East Sussex is when you come up through High and Over from Alfriston and you look across to Cuckmere Haven to the east and Seaford Head to the west - now that does make you feel good and at peace with the world.
Unlike the feeling at the Emirates Stadium, poor old Arsenal they win 2-0 away in one of the toughest places to win and go out of the Champions League. Oh dear, how sad their season all over, apart from their mini competition with Spurs and West Ham to see which of them will be the second highest placed London club this year. Still, just think of the money they have saved on silver polish over the past decade.
- Regular discussions with Deputy Chief Fire Officer (DCFO) Gary Walsh on the Marlie Farm court case, which has now concluded and the Judge will consider all the evidence and give his judgement in about six weeks. This had been a difficult two weeks for everyone involved in the case, particularly the families of Geoff and Brian, those who were injured and those of our staff who were called to give evidence. The whole experience of being in court having to recant the events of such a tragic and sad day was not easy for them and their professionalism under such difficult circumstances is to be commended.
- Met up with our team at the LGA Fire Conference; well done to everyone involved, all of you were a real credit to ESFRS with delegates from across the country complementing our staff on their helpfulness. Many other Fire Rescue Services (FRSs) wanted to find out about our volunteer scheme, the Black Museum, Care Providers and other Community Fire Safety (CFS) initiatives. We also gave out information on blood and organ donation to support this vital area of work in the NHS.
- Spoke with the City Mayor Cllr. Bill Randall who gave a welcome to the Conference; the Mayor is a great supporter of the work of ESFRS and the City crews.
- Working lunch with a group of colleagues, who have been working on Incident Command qualifications. This will link with the Joint Emergency Services work we are doing with police and ambulance, specifically to support the first commanders on scene so that all the emergency services have a common understanding of incident command arrangements.
- Listened to the Fire Minister's speech to the Conference where he made it absolutely clear there were no plans to privatise the FRS, but that Government did want to provide the flexibility for Fire Authorities to establish a "mutual". This would allow a Fire & Rescue Service to enter into a contract with a Fire Authority to provide a service on their behalf and also to earn income by using the staff to provide services to other organisations.
- Early meeting with Capita in their new role as owners of the Fire Service College (FSC); looked at their early plans for new teaching and accommodation facilities and for joint service training courses. Very exciting times for the FSC and I am sure many of our younger staff will really benefit from the training opportunities that will be developed over the coming years.
- Went to a separate meeting with the Minister to discuss the work we are doing on leadership with the NHS and police, the innovations we are introducing on cross sector training and to ask for Government support for better sharing of data and information across all local authorities, to ensure we do not have a repeat of the 'Baby Peter' or Soham tragedies. On a local level I believe we must improve data sharing, as we find the vast majority of fire fatalities were known to one of our local agencies, but they have not passed relevant details onto ESFRS.
- Met with Sir Ken Knight to discuss the efficiency review he is undertaking and to look at a number of areas where we can improve efficiency in training and personal development, conditions of service and to ask for access to a great learning tool developed by the Civil Service Learning.
- Attended a meeting of the national Learning & Development (L&D) and HR managers where we were looking at apprenticeships, Retained Duty System (RDS) issues, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Learning Fund and HR data. We are also considering the opportunities we have to develop national frameworks to support L&D and HR across every FRS to improve efficiencies and cost savings.
Crews from Battle responded to a fire at a domestic property in Ashburnham; this was 'make-six' with additional pumps from Bexhill, Herstmonceux, Bohemia Rd, and The Ridge. Firefighters used breathing apparatus (BA) and main jets to fight the fire returning the next day to re-inspect.
Monday was a busy day with the snow and high winds with a number of calls to assist South East Coast Ambulance Service (SECAmb), who were having difficulty reaching patients. All the emergency services worked extremely well together in some difficult circumstances and I was pleased to see firefighters from West Sussex FRS out during the night driving along the A23 to give reassurances to motorists who were stuck in their vehicles overnight.
In East Sussex we had crews from Battle and Heathfield making good use of their four by four vehicles to assist the Ambulance Service and Hailsham crews responded to a car fire and then took the casualty to hospital as there was no ambulance available. Firefighters from West Sussex FRS also assisted SECAmb and worked with the British Red Cross during an exceptional night of bad weather, where we were called upon to do exactly what the public expect us to do, to assist them when they need help.
I know a number of our staff served in the Armed Forces during the Falklands conflict and so I am sure they will have watched with interest the results of this week’s vote, which was 99.8% in favour of remaining British. This was an overwhelming endorsement by local people, but now questions are being asked as to who were the "The Port Stanley 3"; they were probably keen football fans who want to have a team to cheer that has a reasonable chance of winning the World Cup!
In closing, I will return to our staff who assisted and supported the LGA Fire Conference; over the past two days I have received numerous phone calls and emails saying just how fantastic our staff were, how helpful and knowledgeable they were and how they were all a credit to ESFRS. From those who were on hand at the Metropole Hotel, to those who helped to set up and take down our stand, to produce the art and banners and to those who rescued the car of the Assistant Chief Fire Officer (ACFO) from Tyne & Wear, who had got stranded on Devils Dyke, a big thank you.