Meet Gavin Tomlinson – Derbyshire’s new chief fire officer
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 January 2020
David Marley meets Gavin Tomlinson – the first Derbyshire-born firefighter in living memory to have risen through every rank of the county’s Fire and Rescue Service to become its new chief fire officer
Running the county's fire and rescue service today could not be any more different from my days as a trainee firefighter in the early 1990s,' smiles Derbyshire's newly appointed chief fire officer, Gavin Tomlinson. In accepting his appointment last September - almost 26 years to the day after his first shift - he has become the first officer in living memory to have served the organisation on every rung of the ladder of Derbyshire Fire and Rescue's rank structure.
'I am so privileged to have been asked by the Fire Authority Brigade Managers' Appointment Panel to lead Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service. Having spent my entire career with the organisation I am really looking forward to devoting all my energy into protecting our communities and providing a first-class service to everyone living and working in the county,' he says.
Gavin is in reflective mood when we meet in his uber-modern office on the top floor of the new state-of-the-art headquarters building in Ripley. 'To be given the opportunity to climb every rank of the Service is a unique achievement for an ordinary lad from Belper - especially for someone who left school with just four O-levels,' he reflects with pride. 'For me it just goes to demonstrate that it is possible for a normal person from a normal background who went to a normal school to be successful - and for that I will always be very grateful for the opportunities I have had,' he says.
Gavin's promotion to the top of the command tree comes with an additional accolade: he is also the organisation's chief executive officer, with responsibility for managing a multi-million-pound budget and the activities of hundreds of specialist firefighters and support staff.
'Even though almost every aspect of our operations has been transformed over the last three decades, we still have a relatively simple aim - to protect and safeguard the people and property of Derbyshire from a range of threats, including fire and flooding,' he explains, 'and I doubt that will ever change.'
Supporting Gavin's task are over 900 fire and rescue service personnel - comprising over 350 permanent full-time and 300 part-time retained firefighters, with a further 200 colleagues working in control, human resources, communications, community engagement and training roles. 'They all do an amazing job in keeping the people of Derbyshire safe and secure,' he explains.
Front-line operational firefighters are located in 31 fire stations across the county, taking responsibility for operating 41 fire engines and a further 20 specialist appliances, including boats and mobile rescue command facilities.
Full-time permanent firefighters and officers work out of eight stations which are operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 'These whole-time stations are located in strategic parts of the county - including three fire stations in Derby, plus others in Long Eaton, Ilkeston, Alfreton, Chesterfield and Buxton,' he says. Supporting operational activity is a team of part-time retained firefighters who work out of rural and town locations, including Belper, Duffield and Matlock, providing fire and flood protection services across the county.
'Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service provides cover across the county's 3,000 sq kms of land and property, from densely populated city and town locations to remote areas of the Peak District National Park,' he explains reassuringly. 'Derbyshire in that respect is one of the most interesting and diverse places in the country to provide an efficient and effective fire service.'
Last year the Service was called into action at a series of high-profile incidents. In August, just one month before Gavin was formally promoted from his role as deputy chief fire officer, he was called to attend the major incident at Toddbrook Reservoir, near Whaley Bridge.
'Fire crews from Derbyshire and beyond took a lead role in protecting homes, businesses and people after a dam wall began to show signs of significant stress and decay,' he explains. 'Whaley Bridge was a uniquely challenging situation, but it was also the most outstanding joint response to a major incident I have ever worked on. The achievements of those colleagues working at the scene during those seven long days and nights will stay with me forever - and I am so proud of their work.' With only limited opportunities for rest, Gavin and former chief fire officer Terry McDermott directed the activities of almost 1,000 fire and rescue personnel. 'Officers had been sent to the incident from every corner of England and Wales with an aim of reducing the risk of the dam wall collapsing. Our main priority was to halt any more water entering the north end of the reservoir as quickly and efficiently as we could.'
Firefighters were tasked with emptying over 150 million gallons of water in the dam, and they worked day and night with structural engineers to install ten giant semi-permanent steel pumps and over six miles of pipework. 'Everything had to be put in place by hand and firefighters supported by colleagues from the police, military and other voluntary groups managed the situation on the ground extremely effectively. In addition, specialist boat crews and divers were ready to save lives if the dam wall gave way.'
All but two of Derbyshire's fire station crews attended the incident and Gavin is quick to praise the response of the local community to the arrival of hundreds of fire and rescue personnel. 'The support and welcome we received were incredible. Despite the stress and trauma of the situation, these people showed the very best of our society - and we are very conscious of their contribution to what was finally achieved.'
Dozens of volunteers opened make-shift kitchens, providing food and drink to rescue workers. 'We will always be grateful to them for their kindness and hospitality,' Gavin reflects. Working out of a local sailing club and a football ground, community groups operated a 24-hour respite facility and Gavin is determined to keep in touch with the volunteers. 'We hope to organise a special open day in the village, and remain committed to keeping them informed of the progress of our work in the area.'
Just three months later, fire crews were dispatched to protect property and people in flood-affected areas of Derbyshire, including Matlock, Darley Dale and Belper. 'This had to be one of the wettest periods of recent times,' he says. 'Rising river levels led to several locations becoming vulnerable to flooding. Sadly, a number of properties were affected and my staff were called on to rescue stranded people, as well as provide support to local communities with sandbagging.'
Looking out of Gavin's office window it is hard not to be impressed by the new headquarters' operation, compared to the quiet charm of the Service's former home at the Old Hall in Littleover. In 2016 Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service joined forces with Derbyshire Constabulary to build the new bespoke joint headquarters in Ripley. 'We invested millions of pounds from the sale of the Old Hall and have already reaped so many benefits from making the move. It is good to be in the same building as our police colleagues. We can respond better to incidents and are more efficient and effective in our day-to-day operations.'
Following the creation of the joint headquarters, fire and rescue managers pressed ahead with the development of a new state-of-the-art training centre at the Ripley site. When it opened in December 2017 it became one of the country's most sophisticated facilities for the training of new and experienced firefighters.
'The joint training centre with our police colleagues has to be one of the most impressive in England and Wales - and is proving to be the launchpad for training and developing the next generation of our firefighters in Derbyshire,' he says. 'This is a place where fire colleagues can learn how to use some of the country's cutting-edge equipment and facilities, including specialist breathing apparatus and underground rescue simulation scenarios, as well as advanced control room command centre facilities. It is, quite simply, world-class,' he says proudly.
Gavin confesses that his new responsibilities seem a world away from his first steps into the world of employment, growing up in Belper in the mid-1980s. He studied at Long Row Primary, Herbert Strutt Middle School and Belper High School, before seeking employment in the town's once thriving knitwear industry.
'As for so many other lads in the town, it was the obvious route to get work,' he recalls. 'I joined Jaegar when I was 18 but quickly realised that the factory world was in terminal decline.'
After five years, Gavin decided to seek a new job with better career prospects. 'I considered the police, the prison service and even the Royal Air Force,' he reflects. Then one day he noticed a local advert for firefighter vacancies. 'I went to a couple of awareness events and really liked what they had to offer but there was such a demand that I struggled to get an interview. I decided to take a job with a local construction firm although the desire to work for the fire service remained. Some years later I noticed that the Service was recruiting again and submitted an application.'
Gavin was thrilled to pass the application process but his job offer was rescinded due to budget cuts. Despite the set-back he remained typically positive and in the following year was invited to attend a medical test when recruitment funding was reactivated. 'I jumped at the chance to join the Service and suppose I have never really looked back since,' he smiles.
Gavin also acknowledges that starting his new career, in September 1993, was a bit of a baptism of fire. 'It was a major learning curve for me - after all I was an outsider, with no previous experience or knowledge of what was expected or required.' However, he embraced the new opportunities that came his way and over the next 20 years was promoted steadily up through the organisation, completing a number of operational and junior management roles at fire stations in Ilkeston, Ripley, Chesterfield and Derby city.
'My big break came when I started to specialise in fire safety roles - since then I progressed to a number of senior management posts, beginning with a temporary area manager role back in 2010,' he recalls. Over the next five years he completed a series of promotion examinations, executive leadership training courses and achieved a Master's degree in Business Administration at the University of Lincoln. 'In 2015 I was promoted to the role of deputy chief fire officer - and when Terry McDermott decided to retire last year I was encouraged to apply for the chief's role and was delighted to be appointed. It truly is the high-point of my 26 years' service as a firefighter in Derbyshire.'
Gavin, who now lives in Holbrook, near Belper, with his partner Nicola, still gets a buzz when welcoming new recruits into the fire service. 'A firefighter remains one of the most popular choices for people seeking employment,' he explains. 'I am delighted to be welcoming lots of new faces into the Service in January and hope that, like me, they will have a long and happy career.'
In his spare time Gavin likes to keep fit and has taken part in dozens of full and half marathons. 'I really love running and take great pride in maintaining a high level of personal fitness,' he says. 'Recently I have completed runs in Paris, Tissington and Manchester - but I am at my happiest jogging along the Cromford Canal at Ambergate or up on The Chevin in Belper.'
A lifelong supporter of Derby County Football Club, when time allows he enjoys watching his favourite team. He has only just hung up his own football boots, having played for the last 30 years. 'Most recently I played for Duffield veterans but my playing days are in the past now,' he laughs.
Gavin is also eager to mention his pride in his two children, Alex and Seth, but confides that they are unlikely to follow him into the fire service. 'Alex is 22 and completing a Master's degree at Nottingham University and Seth wants to pursue a media career at Leeds University,' he says. 'Whatever they end up doing I hope they find as much career satisfaction as I have enjoyed.'
The role of Derbyshire's fire and rescue service is certain to continue to evolve, and with Gavin at the helm residents can be assured that for many years to come one of the county's most respected and trusted organisations has all the right qualities in its leader.