ou may not have heard of Mike Thomas before, but he is about to become a familiar name in the UK protective clothing industry: the chief fire officer for Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue is the first man in the history of the fire service to put his staff in kit that will incorporate a national identity.
The new clothing has been developed for use by Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) across England by the Integrated Clothing Project (ICP), the national procurement strategy for the public sector. It’s been a contentious subject for the UK’s PPE industry over the last few years and has been criticised as an unworkable scheme that will curb innovation and reduce competition. As a result, the industry will no doubt be watching Mike and his firefighters closely over the coming months to see if the ICP can deliver on its promises.
The ICP was set up to provide firefighters in England with the best protection available as well as creating a national identity and addressing equality and diversity issues in the FRS. March 30th 2009 marks the official launch of the first roll-out under the ICP, which was delivered in February to 750 firefighters at Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue, and the project couldn’t have wished for a better advocate than Mike Thomas. Well-respected in his field, he has a thorough understanding of the ICP having been involved from the start as a representative on the ICP board and as a critical friend during the garment trials, and he just so happens to be passionate about making it a success.
One of the main reasons for this is because Mike believes the ICP can offer his staff greater protection from fires and heat stress. “There’s some innovation in the products themselves, but the real key for me is the testing,” he says. “We could not have replicated the garment trials on our own or in collaboration with one or two other fire brigades and, as a consequence, we know that we really have garments that are fit for purpose.”
The ICP offers 140 different items of clothing for every member of staff from operational PPE for structural and wildland firefighting as well as technical rescue (USAR) to ceremonial wear, station wear and corporate wear – all selected with a common identity in mind. Maternity wear, multi-faith garments, optional allergy clothing and special clothing for those with disabilities have also been designed for employees at all levels within the organisation.
Each firefighter at Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue will be supplied with two sets of PPE - the Pbi Gold™ structural two piece fire suits - along with a range of station wear in the new red and grey combination that has been chosen as the national identity for the fire service.
The contract also specifies fleeces and waterproofs from the ICP range.
While the serious consideration given to equality and diversity can only be positive, Mike admits that, when it comes to creating a national identity across the 48 Fire and Rescue Services, there have been differences of opinion within the FRS. “A national uniform is uncomfortable for some people who find that they no longer have the freedom of choice, and the FRS is very conservative and slow to change,” he says.
“Some people have said they don’t like the colour but they’ve never tested it so they’re making a decision based on a simple preference rather than looking at all the evidence that has been presented.”
Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue is the first in the country to wear the red and grey station wear. Firebuy, the national strategic procurement agency tasked with delivering the ICP procurement, says that the new colour scheme provides a Fire & Rescue Service ‘national identity’, making staff more recognisable to the public when they are visiting homes to carry out fire safety checks or working within communities on other fire safety campaigns.
Mike believes that the public are very much behind the idea of PPE and station wear that gives firefighters a national identity because it means that a certain level of service and confidence can be assumed, no matter where the firefighter is in the country.
“Some people say that they want to have an image that reflects their local community, but the reality is that there probably isn’t a single image that reflects a local community and, even in the FRS, if you see the size of Lincolnshire, they don’t even talk the same language in the top of the county and the bottom of the county,” he says. “By having this national identity, it creates the opportunity to go through a major branding exercise and raise public awareness and expectation.”
The best way to persuade others is to practise what you preach, which is exactly why Mike decided to make Lincolnshire the first FRS to sign up to the ICP. “I was not only prepared to talk about it but to put my money where my mouth was and show others that the products were the right products for firefighters,” he says.
Mike is also shrewd enough to realise the other benefits of being first in line. Referring to the announcement made in December 2008 that London Fire Brigade had chosen by independent tendering Bristol Uniforms – the ICP’s contracted service provider - to kit out its 6,000 firefighters, he says: “There was always a chance that Bristol Uniforms would win the London contract and so one part of me thought that, if I get in first, our kit will be made before London’s project bites,” he says. “Anyone joining it now will be behind them and that will naturally create delays in delivery of the PPE, although it will probably encourage others to come onboard, too.”
Firebuy has told director-e that it is confident that Bristol Uniforms can deliver on current and future contracts. In a statement, it announced: “Within the ICP bid, the requirement was for one service provider to supply a national contract. If London Fire Brigade has chosen Bristol Uniforms to supply its PPE, it won’t affect Firebuy’s ability to deliver future ICP contracts via the same supplier.”
Bristol Uniforms, meanwhile, says that it has already increased its manufacturing capacity to take into account future business, both from London Fire Brigade and ICP brigades by investing in new UK warehousing, increased fabric and materials storage and further accredited sewing facilities. The London contract will also be serviced through a new Bristol Service Centre in London.
Although the ICP is not mandatory, FRSs are expected to buy their kit from the ICP unless they can come up with a good reason not to. Regarding London Fire Brigade’s decision to go outside the ICP, Bristol Uniforms told director-e: “London Fire Brigade had contracts which it needed to renew or extend before the ICP was complete and was granted the freedom to do this by the then ODPM. This flexibility has been maintained allowing LFB to tender independently.”
“As all PPE supplied across the country is required to meet European standards, the performance of ICP and non-ICP PPE will be the same. The major differences will be the access to a comprehensive range of clothing, all forming part of a new national identity and supplied under a centrally-negotiated contract. This contract provides significant savings in time and resources where procurement takes place through the ICP avoiding separate trialling and testing of garments and commercial negotiations.”
Mike says that the decision over whether to opt in or out of the ICP will sometimes come down to the different protection available. “We’ve gone for the Pbi Gold™ fabric offered by the ICP because we believe that it offers the best flexibility and the highest level of protection for our firefighters,” he says, “whereas London Fire Brigade has decided that they want a different level of protection that isn’t available through the ICP contract.”
The other part of the ICP – the provision of managed services – is also optional. These are available mainly for PPE and can be accessed as part of either a Purchase with Managed Service contract (PMS) or Fully Managed Service (FMS), which includes a lease contract option. Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue has chosen Purchase Only (PO), where they will purchase the kit from Bristol Uniforms but use third party Images At Work to store, deliver and care for it. This has enabled Lincolnshire FRS to maintain its relationship with Fenland Laundries in Skegness, who have provided the maintenance of their fire kit for some years.
So, with Lincolnshire still the only FRS to sign up to the ICP so far, where will the project go from here? Bristol Uniforms says that a number of other fire services are already at an advanced stage in moving to sign contracts through the ICP and that these will be announced in the coming weeks.
“I think now’s the time for people to step up and sign up and move on,” Mike says. “Whilst the reviews have been fairly mixed, I think that a majority of people like the image and style, and the quality of the product means that here we have something that the firefighters themselves can feel fairly proud in. My team feel valued because they are getting something that is designed for their needs and with their role in mind. I just hope my colleagues see the benefits of it and ensure that it’s a viable product for the future. By being a vanguard, others will realise that Lincolnshire can do it, so why can’t they?”