Second to none

Vijith Randeniya, the first Asian chief officer in the fire service, is a proud Londoner and passionate about his job. He explains why his adoptive West Midlands has the potential to be the best brigade in the world and is also keen to promote his profession to groups across the whole community
Vijith Randeniya
The job of firefighting has changed over the years, says Vijith Randeniya. Photograph: David Sillitoe

"I need to plan long, but I'm being measured short." Vijith Randeniya, the chief officer of the West Midlands Fire Service, does not mince words when it comes to the role of regulation.

Randeniya is the first Asian chief officer in the fire service in England and Wales. He was promoted to the post in March, having been acting chief officer since last year, and last night that achievement was honoured at the "Asian Oscars", the GG2 leadership and diversity awards, where Randeniya received the prestigious Hammer Award. He takes pleasure in being an award-winning role model, but wants to be recognised for his effectiveness, not his ethnicity (see SocietyGuardian).

Randeniya became a firefighter in 1983, joining the London fire service after doing a degree in modern history. In almost three decades, he has seen the fire service change substantially. He welcomes the greater present-day focus on prevention, safety and work in the wider community, using modern technology and tools.

"We use data and information in a way we've never done before," he explains. West Midlands was the first brigade to use data to profile where fires were happening in the region and that has enabled it to use resources more effectively. Demand for the service follows a regular pattern, with less demand on a night, for instance.

Looking at where fires occur also means Randeniya expects the work of his force to increase as times get harder. "We know that our calls are going to go up," he says. "Poorer people have more fires. People with health issues have more fires."

Randeniya says he has seen too much of the misery associated with house fires that could have been prevented, not to welcome a change of emphasis. But it does mean the job of firefighters has changed over the years and he acknowledges this can be a challenge for some staff.

While firefighting will always be at the heart of the job, there are many other aspects to it as well. Education has become increasingly important and his service carries out 50,000 visits a year, taking out its message about preventing fires.

There is still much to do in the fire service to encourage different ways of working, particularly in partnership with other public services. The service has strong links with other bodies, especially the police and local authorities and Randeniya is a keen supporter of the Total Place approach.

Birmingham is one of the Total Place pilots and Randeniya says this fits well with his service's strategic planning on, for instance, estates management. He would be happy for fire stations to be co-located with PCT or other community-based buildings.

As a high-profile, and still relatively rare, fire service leader from an Asian background, Randeniya is also keen to expand the appeal of the fire service across the whole community and recruit from groups who might not, in the past, have thought of a career in the fire service.

His own father was less than thrilled when Randeniya joined the service after university, and Randeniya is keen to stress that going into the fire service can be a good professional choice.

An awful lot of world outside the M25

For a Londoner, Randeniya has taken on the cause of his adopted region with a vengeance. "Most Londoners are pretty arrogant about London. There's an awful lot of world outside the M25. We have electricity here 24 hours a day," he says.

"This is the second biggest brigade in England and Wales and it's somewhere I felt I could make a difference, because this is a brigade with a view about how it can and should shape the future. We sit in the shadow of places like London but I think this could and should be the greatest fire brigade in the world. Somewhere has to be and why shouldn't it be us? They talk about Birmingham being the second city. But I don't get out of bed for anything that's second."

Achieving this ambition will require people to take risks, says Randeniya, who espouses the modern management mantra of tolerating honestly-made mistakes. But he is careful to differentiate between what's acceptable practice in different parts of his service. There's no room for mistakes when dealing with incidents, and in that context the fire service is, rightly he says, hierarchical, prescriptive and autocratic.

"But my officers sometimes have to step out of that to work in a consensual, management environment," acknowledges Randeniya. The challenges of dealing with budgets, working in partnership with other organisations, and working with targeted communities in different ways all call for his staff to be creative and innovative.

Randeniya's force has set its budget for this year. Next year is less certain, because it depends on how the political landscape changes. Randeniya will say only that he is "expecting changes" - and he is already planning for a possible downturn in budgets. That has resulted in a freeze on hiring and a need for "flexibility" in roles across the organisation.

If anticipating hard times is one challenge, another bugbear is regulation. Randeniya believes there is a danger with some of the targets set by government watchdog the Audit Commission.

Some of those targets, he says, "miss the whole of what we do" and can cause "organisational disruption and unintentional misdirection". At a time when he is trying to plan strategically for a three-year programme, and take into account a possible spending squeeze, he finds the regulatory process overly intrusive.

"The Audit Commission comes along and says what did you do last month, or in the past six months. It's a real challenge, not to get drawn into that process, when you've really got to think about what we know is coming," says Randeniya. Hence his view that he is being asked to plan for the long term - but he and his force are being measured in the short term.

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