Every interaction is important

In a reflective mood, BOB REA QFSM, MIFireE, shares a personal thought after an exposure to a recent event when he had cause to reflect on some words written by a family member which made him realise how important every interaction we have with people is, and the potential effects that each one could have on them.

This reflection makes me look at some of the interactions I have had during my journey after the fire service. I have been very fortunate in being welcomed into different fire service arenas globally, where as firefighters do, we engage in technique discussions and telling stories ‘Swinging The Lamp’.

We know that we do things differently, no matter where our career paths take us and the nature of our chosen career. These different approaches can be due to geographical reasons, organisational requirements, personal preference and life experiences, but the common theme is we are trying to achieve the same objective, sometimes in different directions. One such experience for me was when I was spending time with a firefighter and fire officer from a local fire service in Georgia USA, during a long duration exercise at a disaster management centre. As firefighters will, we were ‘Swinging the Lamp’ and discussing a recent fire they had attended. To me it became evident that sharing a technique used in the UK when approaching a door behind which there is believed to be a fire was something they had not considered. Taking this opportunity, we opened up an in-depth discussion, with a follow up training evolution to demonstrate and solidify their understanding of the process.

Using simple physics, we all know that water boils at 100 degrees C, we also know that heat transfers through conduction through different materials. This we discussed and how the use of water on the exterior face of the door to identify where the thermal layer was. This would allow them to risk assess entry to the compartment, with better knowledge of the internal conditions. Some months later I met up with these firefighters again and they shared excitedly that the technique worked.

One of the ways in which I have been able to use my experiences is providing health and safety advice to support the delivery of complex long duration exercises involving the use of ‘Live Agents’ and in ‘Realistic Environments’. I found providing the advice and convincing the overseas clients a particular challenge, not just through the legislative differences, but the different health and safety cultures and attitudes across the globe. The UK is recognised and teased about being over careful and seek to avoid risks, where other nations are perceived as risk hungry. So, the challenge for me was the managing of clients’ risk appetite, risk awareness and how the risks could be mitigated.

One particular interesting balancing act I had to overcome was the different risk acceptance from the civilian to the military worlds. An incidence of this was where I compiled the risk assessment for the use of live radiation at a disaster management centre for an extended duration exercise. The exercise was designed to test a response capability to respond to a radiation release in a built-up environment.

The main contractor was very wary of the use of live radiation and they wanted to avoid the risk altogether, rather than risk any exposure and they were seriously considering cancelling the exercise, or removing the radiation element. One of the unique selling points of the venue is their ability to use ‘Live Agents’ and to remove the radiation would have lessened the experiential learning opportunity for the attendees. I spent time with the exercise management team and it became evident that they did not fully understand radiation and how to mitigate it. I took time to explain the different types and how the use of the simple approach of ‘Time, Distance and Shielding’ plus the use of competent safety personnel would keep persons safe and prevent any uncontrolled exposure of the sources.

I presented the risk assessment to the main contractor’s Health and Safety department for review, once they had done this and accepted it, the exercise was allowed to continue as designed. In the USA the issuing of ‘Challenge Coins’ is for work well done or particularly high performance, I received a challenge coin for my work on the safety of the exercise from the main contractor’s Health and Safety Manager, a rare event.

During this exercise I was the Safety Officer, overseeing the dark hours from 2000hrs to 0800hrs. In the quiet hours on the first shift, the Exercise Director came over to me and said ‘Why have I got a Brit running safety’, I cheekily replied ‘Because I can do your job’ and I then explained my background, my career and involvement in the facility design, build and management. Several years later, the then Exercise Director came up to me, as I was the Exercise Director and said ‘You sure can do my job’, high praise indeed from this individual, who I have developed a friendship and mutual respect for.

I have worked with different clients and used my health and safety passion to identify health and safety issues which have potential business sustainability impacts. Engaging senior management and providing guidance to help them lead a change in safety culture. As an advocate for senior management to set the example and cascade the organisation’s strategy and direction, then working across the organisation to instil the change.

My most recent opportunity, was when I identified that an organisation was to engage some temporary workers, who were deemed to be ‘young persons’, by Health and Safety legislation. Through speaking up (I should learn my lesson), I was asked by the CEO to review the induction package and process, this resulted in a long weekend of writing, where I completely rewrote the documents as I identified areas of improvement. I discussed the documents with the CEO and HR who accepted and implemented the rewrite. I was then given the task of conducting the initial safety training with the ‘young persons’. They worked through the summer without incident or injury, which as I have personally known two of them made the result even more satisfying.

The above are only examples of where two cultures interact, imagine having to overcome a third being involved in the equation too. This is the case where I am programme managing a suite of programmes in the USA, where the students are from the Middle East. This adds not only a different culture, but the additional barrier of language. As I alluded to in my first article, the challenges involved in this project will be the subject of a future article.

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