From the Toxteth riots to the ravages of the West Pennine Moors fire last summer Chris Kenny has spent 40 years in the fire service. He tells Fiona Finch about his career and why the county should be very proud of its fire and rescue workers.
Chris Kenny had planned to take just one year out sampling the world of work before university.
But that year sealed his future.
It turned out to be the start of a lifetime’s career in the fire service.
Now, some 40 years later, he is preparing to bow out from the top fire and rescue service job in the county.
He has been Chief Fire Officer for the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service since 2012 and had previously split his career between the red rose county and Merseyside.
The 59 year old admits he joined the fire service on a whim, intent on starting a degree in biology the following year.
He joined the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service in 1978, fresh from the local De La Salle Grammar School and says: “I probably wouldn’t have employed me looking back - I was full of myself and arrogant.”
His career has taken in not just memorable fires and events such as the Toxteth riots and last summer’s weeks long fire on the West Pennine moors, but also, in recent years, the ongoing challenge of maintaining the service despite £10m cuts since 2010.
Of Toxteth he recalls: “That was certainly eventful, a lot of destruction,a lot of fires, violence and being stoned - that was in the days when we weren’t really prepared for them.”
Of the cuts he notes that a reduction in fire engines, introducing new duty systems and job cuts through natural wastage rather than redundancies had achieved the £10m: “We’ve made difficult decisions. We’ve balanced the budget and it’s been painful. If you don’t agonise over some of these difficult decision you’re in the wrong job."
There have, be says, been “a few pivotal things” which have influenced the timing of his planned retirement on April 30.
Chief among these is the top accolade the county’s fire workers received after being in the first tranche of new style inspections by the HMICFRS (Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services).
Chris said: “Lancashire came in as the best performing service. It was the only one to get an ’outstanding’’ in any categories.”
It was rated outstanding for "the way it promote the right values and culture" and was rated good for being effective and efficient "at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks" and for the way it looks after its workers.
The second was the fact he had indeed notched up 40 years of service last December, while many fire personnel retire after 30 years.
Thirdly the service had successfully resisted calls for a takeover.
Chris said: “There was talk of the Police and Crime Commissioner taking over governance of fire (services). That’s been limited to continued collaboration rather than takeover. That’s a degree of uncertainty removed.”
Chris’s stance was to support the authority’s case and ask would such a change improve the service provided? He thought not.
Chris moved to Lancashire in 2000 to become Head of the Service Training Centre and was made Assistant Chief Fire Officer in 2003.,
Looking back on his career Chris says: “It’s a fantastic job. There aren’t many days I haven’t laughed out loud, I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every day of work - that would be myth but overall it’s been a fantastic job and a fantastic career.
“Our greatest asset are our people There are some great people who work for the Lancashire Fire and Rescue service. They do a fantastic job. Every day they come out and try to be the best.”
But as he knows all too well a fire service career is not for the faint hearted: “You can’t go through a fire service career and not see a degree of death and destruction.”
The 2018 Winter Hill fire raged on the West Pennine moors for 41 days and the Desmond and Eva floods saw the fire service personnel helping many county communities.
The most recent service inspection took place as the Winter Hill fire raged.
Chris recalls: “I got a call from the Chief Inspector - do you want to go ahead? I said yes we would, it was probably a good call. They saw us busy and at our best and all the staff working and being involved and serving the community.”
He was especially heartened by the support of that community: “People wanted to give help and assistance, They were bringing water and sun cream and clapping fire engines.”
Although he missed his first chance of a university education in 1985 he was in the first group of students to gain a Fire Engineering degree at UCLan. He attained Chartered Engineer status in 1997, combining his academic qualifications with his technical experience within the service. Two Masters degrees followed, in management from Coventry and in Fire Command at UCLan. In 2013 he was awarded the Queen’s Fire Service Medal in the New Year’s Honours List.
He is proud of the way fire service staff are empowered to take decisions and says:"We've clearly said to people we expect them to make decisions, to make a difference.Rather than finding reasons why we can't do something we find a reason why we can."
He concludes: “I think the service is in a good state. It doesn’t mean we can’t improve.”
In particular he says there is a need for further improvements in fire service “culture”: “We’ve been working really hard to try and improve. We want to create a workplace where people want to come. We are working to be more inclusive and representative. We have a legacy of under representation of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) and females.”.
Divorced, with two grown up children, he has moved back to Merseyside from near Ormskirk and said: ““After 40 years it’s difficult letting go. I’ve not got any plans to be honest. I’ll have a bit of time out to think about what’s next - if anything. I enjoy walking. I can keep myself fit. I might go back to playing football.”
. *The Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service has 1,250 fire fighters and civilian staff. They comprise 630 full time firefighters, 400 retained fire fighters and 220 support staff.