As the United States continues to have one of the worst fire problems in the Western world, Fire Prevention Week is the best time to see how a large fire department in the United Kingdom effected a paradigm shift in its approach to its own rampant fire problem. This involved courageous leadership and the cooperation of every firefighter. The elements of this innovative, successful approach are outlined in the following interview.
Two years ago, I received a call from Chief Tony McGuirk of the Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service in England. He asked me if he could send two fire officers to Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort to see our interactive fire education exhibit, "Where's the Fire?" presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance. He wanted to understand its effectiveness and to see how he might create something like it in his city. Little did I know that I would become friends with one of the most progressive fire chiefs I have known. We have developed a great relationship in which I have become his student. He has applied the applications of fire service marketing management to create a paradigm shift in fire protection in his jurisdiction. He was kind enough to grant an interview. It is packed with information and education for any department that wants to make significant change to attack the fire problem.
McGuirk entered public service as a firefighter over 30 years ago in Manchester, England, and has been the chief fire officer of the Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service for the past five years. Merseyside has 26 fire stations, employs over 1,400 operational personnel, and its annual revenue budget of £ 72($140) million makes it one of the largest metropolitan fire services in the UK. McGuirk has a master of science degree in human resource management, is a graduate of the Civil Service Top Managers program, and in 2006 he completed the Harvard Business School Leading Change and Organizational Renewal Program (LCOR). On behalf of the government, he chairs the national Leadership Stakeholders forum, a body responsible for implementing a new leadership approach and style in UK fire and rescue services. He represents the UK in the Federation of European Fire Officer Associations. He has presented professional papers at international fire conferences in Europe, New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. He is a qualified fire engineer and in 2006 was awarded the Queen's Fire Service Medal. In 2008, his brigade will host the World Firefighter Games in Liverpool.
Firehouse: Please describe your jurisdiction and the department.
McGuirk: Merseyside is a metropolitan area in the northwest of England encompassing five local authorities - Liverpool, Knowsley, Sefton, St. Helens and Wirral. The main city is Liverpool, and the county covers an area of 653 square kilometers. One and a half million people live in Merseyside. The population is largely white with the strongest concentration of non-white ethnic groups in Liverpool, where they make up 5.7% of the population.
Merseyside has large pockets of deprivation with associated high levels of social exclusion, crime and incidents of fire. All the five districts covered by the fire department are in the 25% most deprived in the country. Liverpool is ranked the number-one most deprived area in the country and Knowsley the third most deprived. Research strongly indicates a link between local socio-economic factors and the incidence of fires.
A range of factors in Merseyside increase the risk of death and injury from fire. The number of economically active people and educational achievement is below the national average. Health statistics show high levels of smoking and generally incidents of chronic diseases are higher than the national average.
In all Merseyside authorities, male life expectancy and the percentage of households where one or more persons has a limiting long-term illness are among the worst 25% in the country. There is an increasingly aging population, and the number of pensioners living alone in Merseyside has increased by more than the national average in the last 10 years along with those with long-term debilitating illness. Older people are at high risk of fire especially if they are poor, live alone, have limited mobility, and smoke and/or drink alcohol.