The Isle of Wight’s chief fire officer, Paul Street, officially retires today (Monday 31 October) after a 33-year career that has seen him involved in many of the Island’s most dramatic emergencies.
Mr Street, the first Island born fire-fighter to work his way through the ranks from fire-fighter to the chief officer, has also helped oversee a major improvement in the organisation itself.
When he was appointed chief fire officer the service was still reeling at being named as ‘poor’ by the Audit Commission – one of only two in the country to get such a rating. Mr Street said at that point there was a real possibility the Island could have lost control of its service.
“To be frank, we were slated by the Audit Commission and at the time there was a real risk that we could have been forced to merge with Hampshire had we not taken the necessary steps to improve in a number of areas. We were told that if we were to keep our service independently controlled we must improve.”
But improve the service did and in 2010 it won the British Quality Foundation’s prestigious Southern England Excellence Award and was also named fire service of the year at an awards ceremony organised by Improvement and Efficiency South East.
Paul said the turnaround was the result of the entire service pulling together with strong backing from the Isle of Wight Council.
“The key was everyone working together much more closely and with great determination to improve. From the new chief officer team to the Fire Brigades Union and the officers and members at County Hall – we all pulled together and took the decisions, some of which were difficult, that were necessary to turn the service around and to keep it on the Island.”
That change continues through the current modernisation process that has seen the service employ more whole-time staff to reduce its reliance on the daytime availability of retained crews while also investing heavily in new equipment and appliances. The project also means transferring the control centre to a ‘state of the art facility’ in Surrey.
Mr Street said this move was a logical step in the ongoing improvement of the service and the right thing to do to ensure residents and visitors are as safe as possible given that there was inadequate back-up to support the existing facility should communications and mobilising equipment fail.
“Joining up the control with the mainland means we are as safe as we can be and of course we retain the local knowledge of the crews themselves.”
Mr Street welcomed other investment in the service. “As I leave, we have got an excellent, modern fleet of vehicles, the best fire-fighting equipment and the best personal protection equipment and breathing apparatus for fire-fighters. The council has invested heavily and should be congratulated for putting its trust and commitment in the service.
“We are not just maintaining a service, we are investing in it and improving in it and all this at a time when the authority is dealing with severe financial pressures.”
Mr Street joined the service in 1978 and has been involved in some of the major incidents affecting the Island since. These have included the washing ashore of extremely hazardous cargo from the wrecked cargo vessel Aeolian Sky in 1979, the attempted rescue of a man from a collapsed well in Grove Road, Ventnor in 1985, the hurricane of 1987, the firebombing of various Island locations by animal rights activists in 1994, the engine fire aboard the Pride of Le Harve while crossing the Channel in thick fog in1998.
Among major Island fires he helped tackle were that at the Fowler’s department store, Ryde in 19991, Metropole Hotel, Ventnor in 1996 and a blaze at the East Cowes Power Station in 2000.
When he leaves the service he will look to find work as a risk reduction & safety consultant, off the Island, specialising in giving support and advice on organisational risk management – one subject in which Mr Street has gained qualifications and expertise.
He will also spend more time on his hobbies that include photography and paragliding.
Reflecting on his career, he said: “I feel lucky to have spent my working life on the Island in a job that I have loved. In recent years the service has taken some difficult decisions and indeed some decisions that were unpopular in some areas with personnel, but I firmly believe they have been the right decisions that have made the service a better one and, consequently, the Island a safer place.”
Mr Street will be replaced as chief fire officer by Steve Apter who, having worked his way through the Island ranks from a retained fire-fighter to the most senior post to continues the tradition of the service promoting filling top posts from within.
A video interview with Paul Street looking back on his 33 year career has been uploaded onto Isle of Wight Council’s YouTube page and also its website – www.iwight.com under the Latest News section.