Ronald Dobson, Honorary Fellow“The London Fire Brigade has to be prepared for anything” - former London Fire Commissioner and LSBU Honorary Fellow Ronald Dobson
Ronald Dobson is an Honorary Fellow of LSBU's School of Architecture and The Built Environment. Ronald has dedicated his 38-year career with the London Fire Brigade to public safety, and spent almost a decade as London’s Fire Commissioner. LSBU honours him for his exceptional career and for the great service he has done to keep London and Londoners safe through a period of great change.
"The balance between fire prevention and fire fighting can be a difficult one to strike. Keeping London safe means preventing as many fires as possible. But for most Londoners it’s still more reassuring to think there’s a fire station round the corner than that they’re entitled to a free fire safety visit and a smoke alarm. Some of the changes I made to improve fire prevention rates met with a fair amount of resistance from the workforce as well as from politicians and Londoners. It took some self-belief to push those changes through but I’m convinced they were right for the city and the Brigade.
"Advances in technology have made the Fire Service’s work safer and easier in some ways, but more challenging in others. When I started in 1978, fire engines had very little equipment other than ladders and hoses. A fire engine today holds an impressive array of gear, including thermal imaging cameras, radiation and/or biohazard detectors and so on. It means the work is more technically skilled (you have to be able to understand and operate specialised equipment under very challenging conditions) but requires less brute strength.
"I’m proud of the work I did with the Equalities Unit in the 1980s but there’s still a long way to go. As we began to attract people from different backgrounds into the service it became clear just how badly a culture change was needed. We set up the Unit to address this, despite a great deal of opposition, and we ran a series of roadshows largely staffed by firefighters from the black and minority ethnic and LGBT communities who gave up their free time to help. We are still a long way from reflecting the make-up of the community we serve but there is an active policy within the London Fire Brigade of encouraging people from underrepresented groups to apply for promotion. It’s a work in progress.
"Before the Twin Towers, terrorist incidents were on a different scale – now we have to be prepared for anything. When the IRA planted a bomb in Canary Wharf in 1996 I was the officer in charge of co-ordinating the search for casualties. It was challenging, but there had been a warning and enough time to evacuate the building. The terrorism we have seen since 2001 has been of a different order altogether. Planning for such events takes nerves of steel but being on the ground as a firefighter requires a level of bravery that is hard to imagine. After a major incident we always lose people who feel unable to carry on in an operational role.
"However much you plan, no major incident will be perfect – there’s always something new to learn. Lessons from the 7/7 bombings were put into practice during the 2011 riots, for example. Every time there is a terrorist incident, new elements are added to the planned scenarios. I was very pleased to see how well the London Fire Brigade handled the 2017 Westminster Bridge attack, for example, because their response built on scenarios I’d helped to develop in the preceding years based on learnings from previous incidents.
"Leading an organisation like the London Fire Brigade through periods of change can be lonely and requires a great deal of confidence. When I took on the job, someone suggested to me that I get a professional coach. She got me to discuss things I’d never shared with other people. One thing that came out was that despite my determination and drive I was not particularly confident and sometimes wondered how I’d reached this point in my career. She explained the concept of “imposter syndrome” to me and it made perfect sense. Even giving it a name was enormously helpful and although I still sometimes feel like an imposter even now, the feeling never defeats me. I have a better understanding of my own strengths and can see the impact that I make in my work.
"To prevent future disasters like the Grenfell Tower and Lakanal House fires requires more than revised building codes. I doubt whether we can rely on codes to keep up with advances in building techniques and materials and if they are too inflexible, people will simply find a way around them. We need building regulations, of course, but for a building to be truly safe it needs the involvement of the fire authority at the earliest design stages and throughout the build, as well as at the point of any improvements or refurbishments. What architects want and what fire safety demands are sometimes at odds, so it’s vital that a fully independent fire engineer is involved from the outset.
"From a fire safety point of view The Shard is a brilliant building. That’s because architects, designers and engineers worked with the London Fire Brigade from the start. We even had someone seconded to the design team, and the end result is a range of solutions that go beyond the demands of any building code or set of regulations. If that’s the right approach for a flagship building like The Shard, it’s the right approach for every building.
"If you don’t already have a smoke alarm, get one today. Most fire deaths are caused by smoke inhalation. It happens very fast – in many cases the victims are dead even before the fire is reported."