Giving back – life after the fire & rescue service

Internationally recognised and respected expert in training Bob Rea QFSM, reflects on his career in the UK Fire and Rescue Service (UKFRS) as it drew to a close.

I felt too young to hang up my fire boots and helmet and settle into the easy chair … 

I had to look at what I would like to do in this new phase of life and to do this I asked myself several questions including:

  • How had the Fire Service prepared me to provide value in the private sector? 
  • What skills would a potential employer be able to recognise from my CV?  
  • How could I convince a potential employer of the knowledge and skills that I have?
  • What sector and where would I like to work?

To address some of these questions I reviewed what I had done with the UKFRS, hoping to identify what to do next. During my career I had undertaken all the elements of the fire service, so I was well rounded in the knowledge and skills of being a Fire Officer. However, who would see the values that this would bring to another organisation? What was my market value and Unique Selling Point? What had I done in the fire service which would set me apart from others? 

This led me to look at my time at the United Kingdom Fire Service College (FSC) where I spent an extended secondment, originally being seconded to course lead the Watch Manager programme. I viewed the FSC as the pinnacle of working in the fire service and to be chosen for a secondment, to me was a real accolade. I had always admired the tutors at the FSC when I had been on courses there and felt they were recognised as being some of the best in their field and at the forefront of training the UKFRS and International students. Post 911, I moved to lead the training for the United Kingdom Fire and Rescue Service Urban Search and Rescue. Having gained knowledge, skills and understanding of a wide range of subjects not only at the Fire Service College, but during my career, I created my company, BR Training Solutions Limited, to try and find a niche in the marketplace. 

It was through leading the USAR Training that generated my reputation both within the UK Fire and Rescue Services and internationally and led to being identified by a company in the USA beginning my longstanding relationship with their bespoke disaster management centre. I was approached to help them design and build this major private project, which set about being the leading training and exercise facility in the USA for disaster response. My specialist knowledge of collapsed structure training facilities, health and safety, facility management and operations management helped design the facilities which included large scale interactive collapsed structures alongside over 50 other buildings and infrastructure to replicate the real environments that can be faced by responders, including road systems, rail subways, tunnels and flooded neighbourhoods. The regular buildings can be ‘Built Out’ to replicate a wide range of buildings, including hospitals, hotels, and domestic buildings. 

This adaptability allows for infinite challenges to be set up for responders to face and presents realistic simulated exercises which can range in duration, employing their knowledge, skills and understanding of response, creating unrivalled experiential learning opportunities, and better preparing them to attend disasters and keep themselves and others safe. 

I retired as this centre opened, and rapidly fell into supporting them with the finishing touches to dress the venues and running their first major exercises for a specialist military response unit. It was my responsibility to oversee the safety and management of the exercise, which was especially challenging with the ‘Live Agents’ being used. The key challenges that I overcame with this exercise was the compiling of the risk assessments and operating procedures for the use of live radiation sources, an integral part of the realism of the exercise, and determining how to manage this with trained responders and the use of civilian ‘Role Players.’

Another challenge identified was the tendency for participants to view the venue only as a training venue, considering them being ‘safe’ and unlikely to be harmed. This mindset led to participants not employing the correct procedures, taking ‘short cuts’ and ‘gaming’ the exercise, and not gaining the maximum from the potential experiential learning. One such event saw the clash of the softer English management style with the military mindset. I paused the exercise when I witnessed repeated actions, which if undertaken in the ’real world’ would expose the responder to extreme risk.  I sat the team leader down and asked him to explain what he was seeing, as I was not seeing it the same way.  As we discussed the two visions and the softer management style, I saw the leader soften and accept that he was treating the exercise purely as a training evolution where he could undertake ‘short cuts’ to complete the objectives and ‘beat the exercise.’ It was quite humbling some years later when a member of staff said to me, “I have used your process on my 16 year old son; I Bob Rea’d him, asking him to explain how he was seeing an issue as I was not seeing it the same way.” He was more surprised by the response and aligning of views. 

Over the years, I have performed many roles at this venue, using the knowledge, skills and understanding I gained during my fire service career to assist in the design concepts, building and environmental safety, develop policies and procedures, and conduct risk assessments of high-risk events and products. I have acted as Safety Officer during training and exercises, Exercise Designer and Director, Trainer, Strategic Advisor, and Mentor/Coach while assisting in the development and safety of responders along with the sustainability of the facility. My current and future roles with this venue are being developed as I write, one of which benefits from my Middle Eastern experience by managing a suite of training programmes to enhance the capability of this country’s fire service. An area I will discuss in the future, identifying the major challenges and how they are being faced and managed.

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