End of an era for GMFRS chair
Thursday 20th April 2017 @ 15:31 by Nigel P.
Greater Manchester News

The next Greater Manchester Fire Authority meeting will be missing a member who will be conspicuous by his absence.

For Tameside Tory leader John Bell, after very nearly 20 years continual service on the Fire Authority as Deputy Chair, the emotion of his last meeting will be too much to bear.

When that meeting convenes today (Thursday), John will be away, taking a well-earned break and an authority colleague will read out a message to the meeting on his behalf.

In his constituency office in Stalybridge, John reflected how he came to be involved with the Fire Service, after initially serving on the Greater Manchester Police Authority.

When he stood down from that body it was at a time when it was adding magistrates and shedding councillors from its numbers.

Following his departure from the Police Authority John actively sought out service on the Fire Authority and was duly appointed as one of three representatives from Tameside.

Shocked

After his appointment he began his tenure by familiarising himself with the Fire Service by personally visiting each fire station.

John said he was shocked by what he found.

“I was amazed by the sheer number of call outs and in comparison to the other blue light services it really was the poor relation. The way local government was treating the fire service in comparison to he other blue light services also left a lot to be desired and the service was badly under resourced.

“I went to the then Cabinet member then responsible, Councillor Margaret Oldham and said we had to do something about this to raise the profile of the Fire Service.”

Without a dedicated communication department John observed that policy was not being led by the Fire Authority, but more by the media.

Proactive

He felt the Fire Authority needed to be more proactive and have a modern communications and media department, that would set the agenda for the media to follow.

“We worked very hard to bring it on a par with the other blue light services and it is something that I am so proud of,” he says.

“The Service now has a superb dedicated Communications Department and it does so much more, which has made it more efficient.

“The emphasis now is on fire prevention, we have fitted smoke alarms in thousands of homes and we conduct safe and well visits.”

Red One Alert is a programme which John is also proud of, with officers now trained in dealing with cardiac arrests.

In the absence of medical emergency personnel they are capable of intervening and stabilising a patient until the ambulance service arrive.

John added: “We are the only service in the country whose officers are trained to do this.”

End of an era: John Bell

During our conversation John revealed his boyhood ambition prior to his long service in politics was to be, not a firefighter, but a policeman! Unfortunately John suffers from acute short sightedness, so that thwarted this ambition.

He also came from a Labour voting family who made sure that his first employment, after leaving Greenfield Secondary Modern school in Hyde, would be in a unionised work place.

Despite failing his 11 plus exam John says he owes a lot to his education at Greenfield, which also produced other local politicians like Joe Kitchen and Jim Fitzpatrick. It was his involvement in politics that superseded his earlier ambitions to join the police.

He explained: “I am above all a people person and for me the interests of people have always come before politics.”

The importance that John puts on people is apparent in his love of the Fire Service which he describes as not just an institution but a “family”.

“I still get a kick when I pass though the Fire HQ barrier – there is such a feeling of comradeship between everybody who works there. I know everybody by name from the canteen ladies to the senior officers.”

He says the service has moved on a long way since he joined in 1999.

“We have an enviable record in fire prevention – one that many public services could learn from. Over the past few years we have led the way, I believe nationally, in the transformation of our Service,” he states.

“We have seized the great opportunities to improve our service to the public by engaging with our partners in better collaboration, particularly in the field of health.

“This Authority has never been afraid of reforms, and I hope it never will be, as we move into the future with the elected Mayor.

“At the end of last month we opened our new Training and Community Safety Centre in Bury. This excellent facility must be the envy of our Service nationally for it encompasses all the challenges in making for a truly 21st Century Fire and Rescue Service in Greater Manchester.”

John is passionate however that the Service reflects the community it serves.

“I believe we should have more black minority and ethnic individuals in the Service and we also have to have more women,” he says.

“I also serve on the Fire service Management Committee of the Local Government Association, (an overarching authority for the country) so I know what the situation is nationally. No doubt we lead the way in the drive for diversity.”

He added: “I have every confidence that our senior officers will do everything they can, short of positive discrimination to ensure that we get more women and BMEs into the ranks.

“I want to see more BMEs – it is a scandal that we do not have more – but it is a challenge we are addressing,” he adds.

Is 1,000 firefighters enough for Greater Manchester? “We got rid of a lot of back office staff and we are now a much more leaner, fitter, more efficient outfit than we were pre 2010.”

He says: “Since 2010 there has been a 50 per cent reduction in incidents due to the prevention strategy that we have put in place.

“We now attend more road traffic accidents than we do fires.

“We do not take any cost cutting measures lightly and without regard to safety.”

He has no regrets except that the authority has not resolved the dispute regarding the 12 hour shift, which he believes can work and will be a real cost saving measure.

His greatest achievement whilst serving on the authority?

John reflects: “The raising of the Fire Services profile, but you know there is no one single thing that stands out, it is just the progress we have made on everything.

“Overall what I will take away with me is the pride of serving Tameside and Greater Manchester that will never leave me to the day I die.”