Terry McDermott - Derbyshire's Chief Fire Officer
PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 February 2016
Derbyshire Life meets Terry McDermott following his new appointment as Chief Fire Officer and Chief Executive of Derbyshire's Fire and Rescue Service
‘It really isn’t a myth – we do get dozens of telephone requests from people every year asking us to rescue cats that are stuck up trees,’ chuckles Terry McDermott, the newly appointed chief fire officer of Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service.
‘We also receive many other enquiries about pets wedged down drains, trapped behind gas fires, stuck in sewers, as well as stranded on rooftops – and in this respect the fire service hasn’t changed much since I started as a junior firefighter in Wigan over 26 years ago.’
In his new role as the county’s chief fire officer his remit reaches wider than simply overseeing the safe rescue of much-cherished family pets – he is also the organisation’s chief executive with a responsibility to manage effectively a multi-million pound budget and the work of hundreds of specialist staff with the aim of safeguarding the people and property of the county from a range of threats including fire and flooding.
‘It is fair to say that almost every single aspect of my organisation has evolved since I began my career as a 21-year-old recruit in the 1980s – in short, we are operating in a very exciting and challenging environment,’ he reflects.
The remit of Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service has diversified in recent years. It is now a £39 million operation, employing nearly 900 people – made up of 362 permanent full-time and 341 part-time retained firefighters, 26 command and control employees, as well as 161 support staff working in training, welfare, communications and fleet management.
Firefighters are spread across 31 fire stations, operating 41 fire engines, with responsibility for providing fire cover for a geographically diverse county – comprising nearly three thousand square kilometres of land and property; stretching from the sparsely populated Peak District National Park to historic stately homes such as Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall, as well as over 30 towns, including Buxton, Chesterfield and Swadlincote, and the city of Derby in the south.
In recent times Derbyshire’s Fire and Rescue Service has been called into action at a series of high-profile incidents including a large fire that ripped through the car park at the Assembly Rooms in Derby. Dozens of firefighters from over 10 stations responded to the fire, forcing them to close parts of the city centre to protect members of the public.
As we sit in a charming wood-panelled private office in the magnificent surroundings of the organisation’s current headquarters of the Old Hall on Burton Road in Littleover, it is difficult not to be impressed by the well-informed and fresh-faced Mr McDermott, 47.
‘The fire service is changing – the impact of austerity and the requirement to reduce budgets is now very much part of my day job,’ he says. ‘My combined role of chief fire officer and chief executive requires me to ensure the organisation operates as a business.
‘The challenge is significant, with much of my efforts resembling a military operation – it is a real balancing act; working out risks and then ensuring we use our budget and resources to provide effective and appropriate fire cover for the people of Derbyshire. In many ways I have to juggle my time between being a firefighter and a business leader,’ he smiles.
Terry McDermott’s pragmatic approach to management is guided by a down-to-earth philosophy that is as simple as it is inspiring. In a nutshell, he passionately believes that everyone working for Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service has a part to play in protecting the lives of the people it serves.
He is quick to point out that part of his motivation and outlook is taken from the story of a man who was visiting the headquarters of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States. The visitor approached a member of staff who was sweeping the floor and started a conversation. ‘The man asked: “What do you do?” and the cleaner responded: “I put men on the moon!” Quite simply, I appreciate the big thinking of the cleaner at NASA – and I believe that everyone who works for Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service has a part to play in saving lives and putting out fires,’ Terry explains.
In adopting this plain-speaking style from the top, Mr McDermott is keen to set the tone for his reforms, starting with his own management operation. This can be clearly seen by the planned opening of a new joint police and fire headquarters. ‘It is all part of a new strategy to introduce efficiencies that will help reduce funding-gaps in future budgets. Our current headquarters was in need of further refurbishment, as well as increased maintenance, heating and lighting costs. Moving to a shared building will help to contribute to a modern and effective environment for our organisation. It will also help us to respond to major incidents in a more joined-up way,’ Terry says.
The new building – to be located in Ripley – will house the administrative functions of both organisations. The sale of the existing fire headquarters at Littleover will act as the Fire and Rescue Authority’s contribution to the new building along with a grant from the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Working with other ‘blue-light’ emergency providers is at the core of McDermott’s vision for the fire service. He is quick to point to an example of how this can work well. As part of a six-month pilot scheme with East Midlands Ambulance Service, firefighters received training in trauma care, basic life support, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and oxygen therapy. ‘Our firefighters are now equipped with kit, which includes oxygen and an automated external defibrillator to help patients in a medical emergency such as a heart attack or collapse,’ he says.
‘The ambulance service trained our firefighters to a high standard of medical care and the results of the pilot were impressive. We have been able to act – because of the geographical spread of station locations throughout the county, often quicker than our ambulance colleagues – we have done this as first responders, all helping to provide care in the first critical seconds and minutes of the emergency before the paramedics arrive,’ Terry reflects.
Building on the success of the pilot with the ambulance service, Mr McDermott says he is committed to working further with medical providers to reduce pressure on the already stretched National Health Service. ‘We currently visit homes to provide safety checks and give householders free advice to help prevent fires, including the installation of smoke alarms. Many of our visits target the over-65s – as these people are more likely not to survive a fire,’ he explains. ‘We now are looking to provide further safety checks – such as identifying trip hazards, which can contribute to fires and accidents – and as a result reduce the pressures and costs on the National Health Service.’
In addition to this Mr McDermott has now been appointed to chair a national group looking at the use of sprinklers in the homes of elderly and vulnerable people. ‘We are already seeing the results of putting extinguishers with misting systems in the homes of older people and this has reduced the incidents of fires and associated deaths,’ he says. ‘The extinguishers release the mist which can often help to dampen the fire – they also have a mobile device to contact us, so that when they are activated we can get to the emergency quickly and save lives.’
Education is also seen as an important part of reducing the risks of fires – which currently costs homeowners and businesses millions of pounds every year. ‘We are committed to providing our communities with fire safety education and information. We have an ambitious project which targets all 7-year-olds and 10-year-olds across the county, to educate them about the importance of fire safety in the home and how to avoid accidental fires,’ Terry explains.
As part of the service’s youth engagement scheme, a special book has been designed with interactive resources for teachers and community fire safety officers to use in lessons. All pupils are given a worksheet at the end of each lesson to complete with a parent or guardian to encourage the whole family to make an escape plan of their home.
Like the schoolchildren of today who are being engaged by the current fire safety officers, it was a school visit to his local fire station four decades ago that inspired Terry to become a firefighter. ‘I went along to my local station in Wigan with my school teachers – and the emergency printer went off along with bells, banging doors and engines roaring – it was very exciting and I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up,’ he remembers.
Sadly, due to a high demand of people wanting to be firefighters in the Greater Manchester area he was not able to fulfil his ambitions immediately. Instead he worked in construction for four years, but never lost his hope of joining the fire service. He re-applied and was successful, starting work in 1989 – ironically at the same fire station in Wigan that he visited as a schoolboy.
‘Firefighting has always been a popular choice for people. It is a good career option and one which can be very rewarding,’ he says. After a five-year recruitment freeze in Derbyshire Mr McDermott is keen to highlight that the fire service has started recruiting again. ‘Despite all the funding restrictions and changes to working practices, the fire service remains a highly attractive organisation for people to work for. We recently ran a recruitment exercise and over 1,500 people applied for 10 positions,’ he says.
‘We are very pleased with our new recruits who had to complete a series of rigorous and challenging fitness and educational tests before being appointed.’
He speaks with great pride about his firefighters and support staff, attributing many of the service’s achievements to their hard work and diligence.
‘We must always remember the contribution made to the organisation by our staff. We have some excellent people working here – from the control staff who act as the heartbeat of the organisation to the talented full-time and retained firefighters, and the support staff who make the operation possible,’ Terry says proudly. ‘We recently celebrated our annual awards ceremony and it always impresses me to see the long service and good conduct awards given to our staff.’
Terry, who now lives in Ashbourne with his wife and two young children, moved to Derbyshire after he was promoted to the role of Deputy Chief Fire Officer in 2014. ‘I lived in a local hotel near our headquarters from April 2014. It was a big decision to move my family to Derbyshire but it is one I have no regrets over. I love the county and its people. We’ve been made to feel so welcome. My son has joined a local football team in Ashbourne and my wife loves shopping in the town,’ he says. ‘We particularly like going to Matlock Bath with the children – even though it is as inland as you can be, it has the same feeling we all used to get when we lived in the North West and went to Southport for fish and chips.’