New age chief

AT just 35 he hit the headlines as the youngest ever fire chief. Gone are the days when the chief fire officer could be regularly seen as a man on the ground directing fire fighting.

James Mortlock

AT just 35 he hit the headlines as the youngest ever fire chief.

Gone are the days when the chief fire officer could be regularly seen as a man on the ground directing fire fighting.

Today things are different. Three years on JAMES MARSTON talks to Lee Howell, Suffolk's director of public protection and chief fire officer, about the changing nature of his job, his meteoric career and his hopes for the future of Suffolk.

A FIREFIGHTER by training Lee Howell still goes out to big fires, though he admits he stays away from the day to day emergencies across the county

He said: “I went to the Copleston School fire. It was the last major fire we had in the county. If the fire is significant and requires my level of control I would manage the incident.”

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Today as even fire-fighting becomes a corporate concern the chief fire officer is rarely called into the field.

It wasn't so many years ago that hiss predecessors would be at the scene, directing operations, dealing with the press and taking charge.

But the job has changed and Lee Howell is among the new generation of chief fire officers whose job is more concerned with overall policy over putting our flames.

One of the youngest fire chiefs in the country, Lee Howell joined the fire service back in 1988 and he admits as a young man he was looking for excitement.

He said: “I started my career as a firefighter in Essex. I liked being part of a team and making a difference. It was exciting as well and I know it sounds like a cliché but I wanted a job where I could see how I was helping people.”

Today the father-of-two has a big responsibility as the director of public protection for Suffolk County Council and chief fire officer for the county.

He came to Suffolk as assistant chief fire officer in charge of operations in July 2003.

Lee said: “In December 2004 I was appointed to my current job. I am responsible for joint emergency planning unit for the county as well as trading standards. I am also the champion for health and safety for Suffolk County Council.”

Lee, who lives with his family near Needham Market, takes his responsibilities personally he knows people's lives are at risk if he gets it wrong.

He said: “It is a tremendous responsibility and it is my job to make sure the support systems in place that enable them to do their job are robust. I need to make sure they have the right equipment and the right protection to do a job in which they are asked to risk their lives for others.”

By most people's standards Lee earns a big salary and most days his job is office based, so is he really value for taxpayer's money?

As one of five directors of Suffolk County Council, Lee earns between £96,000 and £123,000 a year, the exact figure remains a secret - indeed there is no legal requirement to disclose it.

But as he holds a public position, Lee Howell accepts that his salary is of public interest.

He said: “I'm not going to tell you exactly what I earn though it is a legitimate question. Salaries for chief fire officers are set by the government on a sliding scale. The bigger the authority the larger the salary and Suffolk is one of the smaller authorities.”

Three years ago Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service was deemed fair by the Audit Commission - so what has Lee done to improve this most crucial of public services?

Lee said: “There was some work to do and some areas that needed improvement. We needed to increase partnership work and build on our relationships with other agencies. We needed to work harder on fire prevention and we needed to improve our internal systems.”

Lee is proud of the statistics:

The number of smoke detectors have increased in Suffolk threefold in three years.

Firefighters' accidents have reduced by a third.

Major fires have been reduced by 10 per cent.

False alarms are down by 15pc.

The Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service is also in the top 25pc for performance in the UK and the second lowest in terms of costs per head in the UK - according to Audit Commission figures.

Lee said the hours spent on community safety have doubled in the last year and the fire service is using a multi-agency approach to tackle road deaths.

He said: “As far as I am concerned the statistics speak for themselves and I am proud of what we have achieved. It has been a collaborative effort and it works. And that's where I get my job satisfaction.”

And in the three years Lee's department has been tested.

He said: “We've had bird flu twice, blue tongue and floods. There have been four major emergencies and for all of those I was the duty officer.

“That means I have full executive authority to deal with those emergencies and use the resources available to the Suffolk County Council at my disposal.”

When an emergency takes place Lee joins the police, and other agencies for the gold command meetings which oversee the reaction to the event.

He said: “It depends on the incident but there will be representatives from other agencies like the Environment Agency, ambulance service, trading standards officers or fire officers, the key people who need to be there.

“In recent weeks we were prepared for significant coastal flooding. We had plans in place for water rescue and body removal. If the wind had been in a different direction there would have been significant flooding. It is my job to coordinate the other agencies and coordinate the response.”

Lee said he regularly goes back to the floor, not for training but to make sure he is on top of his responsibilities.

He added: “I use the opportunity to find out if the firefighters are getting the support they need. My role is also to look at the quality of fire-fighting and check the systems in place and see if there is anything we can learn.”

Neither does Lee actively court a public profile. He said: “When people call the fire brigade they want a firefighter and an engine not the man in charge of finance and strategy and policies. The organisation is bigger than any individual.”

The Evening Star's ombudsman Malcolm Alcock was Lee's predecessor, as chief fire officer and director for public protection from 1997 to 2003. He said the role has not had more of a public face in the past.

He said: “It was rare for me to go out on fires and I would only go to the largest incidents like Centre Parcs, Ipswich Buttermarket and Felixstowe Customs House.

“Today the fire service is much more integrated with other services and the approach is one of working together with other agencies.”

Have you been helped by fire fighters? What do you think of the Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service? Does Lee earn to much money? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

1988: Lee began his career in Grays and Thurrock, Essex. He was promoted to station officer, then became the station commander at Clacton.

1998: He left Essex to go to the Royal Berkshire fire service, holding roles including head of operations, head of fire safety and head of community safety. He said: “I had a big portfolio and it was a challenging time. He then joined the Fire Service Inspectorate, and helped prepare the White Paper that lead to the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. His team were technical advisors to the government.

2003: Lee joined the Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service, as assistant chief fire officer in charge of operations.

2004: Promoted to director of public protection and chief fire officer in November of this year.

359 people were killed or seriously injured on Suffolk's roads in 2006.

3,756 smoke detectors were fitted in Suffolk homes from 2006 to 2007.

8,915 incidents were dealt with from April 2006 to March 2007.

Two turntable ladders, three water bowsers and 43 pumping appliances are included in the fleet.

440 firefighters work part time, and 253 full time.